‘It’s calling me again.’
‘Fight it, Mark,’ said Dr Philippa, ‘you have to fight it.’
Her pleas were no use. Her words became fainter, as if they were uttered by a ghost.
After two years, I thought I would be safe. I thought I would be free.
I was wrong. It had found me again.
The therapy room disappeared, submerged by a black void that descended onto me. It was as if I’d been transported to another world, where all the joy and love of my own had been driven away.
But I hadn’t left the room. All I’d done was close my eyes. I was inside my mind, and that terrified me. I had fallen into this pit before, and it had nearly cost me my life. If I fell again, I wouldn’t climb again.
I couldn’t move, which meant the chains had an easier job capturing me. They slithered up my spine like a preying snake and wrapped themselves around my chest. One flinch, and they tightened, strangling any air that might escape my lungs. I desperately wanted to break free and flee forever from my tormentor, who was yet to arrive.
Their arrival was imminent. A chilling wind tickled the hairs on my arms, and footsteps echoed in the shadows, growing louder with every step.
It was here, looming over me. It was here. The ice-cold fingers caressed my cheeks, a touch I had not felt in two years. I’d forgotten how deceptively gentle they were. My face tensed, knowing my tormentor was standing in front of me, but faceless as always.
I could smell it, though. The old-familiar smell of barley, wheats, and oats engulfed my senses as I was forced to breathe in heavily. I knew I shouldn’t have, but the smell was so intoxicating. So powerful. So inviting.
‘Mark! Mark! Wake Up!’ said a voice from outside the void. A female voice.
I sighed. Dr Philippa was still trying to save me. I feared she would be too late.
My Faceless Tormentor showed no fear, letting out an eerie, guttural laugh that caused the chains to further bend to its will. The gangly fingers reached for my neck and pressed down, causing my veins to bulge to the surface, ready to spill over into rivers of blood.
‘Hello, Mark,’ said the Tormentor, in an imposing voice that I hadn’t heard in nearly ten years.
My father stepped forward from the darkness, just as I remembered him. His silver hair was still neatly combed, and his moustache properly trimmed. He was smirking as he always used to smirk at me, with his hands embedded deep into the pockets of his brown M&S trousers. His eyes were the same crystal blue they’d always been, but they appeared lifeless. That’s when I knew the Faceless Tormentor was playing its sick game with me again, channelling its evil through the one person I’d hoped it would never impersonate.
‘Mark! Open your eyes!’
My father looked up and away from us, showing a little concern that Dr Philippa’s voice was louder this time.
‘She’s too late. It’s good to see you again, Mark.’
‘Leave me alone.’
‘Now, son, is that any way to talk to your father?’
‘You are not my father! You are my illness, my curse, my…’
The fingers reached for my throat again, and the hair on my father’s hand brushed against my chin. He glared at me.
‘I remember a time when I was your paradise.’
My father shook his head.
‘Why do you continue to resist when you know you can never be free of me? I have beaten your friends, Mark. All the people you love eventually bend to my will. And it’s your fault. If you had never introduced them to me, maybe they would still be here today.’
‘Am I? Billy Myers? Annabel Timpson? Your own sister? Aren’t these just some people who you introduced to me? People whose graves you now mark with flowers because of your own recklessness.’
I wept, and my father wailed with laughter.
‘Pathetic. You know, there is a way in which you can take the pain away. Take away your guilt, your sorrow, your shame. I know a way.’
I frowned and stared so deep into my father’s eyes I’m sure the Faceless Tormentor inside them quivered. I snarled behind my teeth, clenching my fists so hard that I was ready to explode.
My father smirked again and leaned in close to me.
‘Give in. That’s how you can stop this. Just give in.’
‘Give in to just one more, and you will be free.’
‘Mark! Can you hear me? Mark!’
Dr Philippa’s voice was so loud the walls of the void shook in its foundations. A single thud of fallen bricks caused the others to shake, and my father to look at his surroundings in utter disbelief.
Its lair was collapsing. The Faceless Tormentor’s home inside my mind was crumbling. Its power was slipping. My faith, hope, and will was becoming too much for it to withstand. A surge of belief filled me, and I pushed against the chains. They tried to strangle me again, but I wouldn’t allow them to firm their grip. I continued to push, screaming a dry cry into the face of my bewildered father who stepped cautiously back from me. My eyes bulged in their sockets as my shirt sleeves tore and evaporated.
One by one, the chains surrendered and fell from my torso, granting me my freedom. My father stood there motionless, and I could see The Faceless Tormentor’s nerve shattering from within. He lunged for me, his dagger-like fingers reaching for my neck. I stepped to one side and caught him by his neck. The eyes that greeted me filled with horror and fright.
And then, in a second, they were gone. Vanished. Morphing into the Faceless Tormentor’s truest form. The form that had nearly destroyed my life.
I was no longer holding a neck in my hands. I was holding a pint of beer, with the oats and barley attacking my nostrils one final time.
Its white head and golden colour mocked me, exuding a beauty that hid the beast inside. I could almost hear it calling to me in its soft, delicate tone.
‘Go on, Mark. Just one more.’
My hand trembled as the walls of the lair continued to collapse around me. A tide of perspiration swamped my head and stung my eyes. I had a horrible sense from somewhere deep inside that I was about to crack, that I was about to fall back to my old ways that had hurt so many that I loved. Fear gripped me like an illness and wouldn’t let go as the beer remained in my hand. My breathing became heavier, and I thought I was about to hyperventilate as my hold on the glass tightened and the demons bashed against my skull, wanting me to give in.
They were too late.
I pulled my arm back as far as it would go, then I thrust it forward and released the glass, sending the beer into the darkness. I heard no crash, but the eruption almost deafened me, and it was in that moment I opened my eyes and escaped the void.
Dr Philippa was shaking my shoulders as I returned to the therapy room and reality. The same apple-coloured green walls greeted me, with my therapist standing in front of me, breathing deep sighs of relief.
‘Thank goodness for that. I thought I was going to have to call the ambulance for a minute. Are you alright, Mark?’
I gazed down at my hands. They felt damp and my legs now ached. I could just about keep them still.
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘You were having a panic attack. Your last words to me were “it’s calling me again” and then you were gone. You closed your eyes and for nearly five minutes I’d lost you. Your entire body was trembling, and your teeth were chattering. Then, it all slowed down, as if someone had flicked a switch and pressed stop.’
‘Jesus. I’m sorry, Doc,’ I said. ‘I never wanted you to see me like that.’
‘I’m glad I have, Mark, because it means I can help you.’
She sat back down opposite me in her chair. A chair that was perhaps a little too low for her. I heard her hips crack as she lowered herself into the seat using the pine armrests. She noticed my look of concern.
‘Brittle bones, that’s all,’ she said, grinning, ‘not so uncommon for a woman of my age.’
She passed it off just like that and reached for her black notebook she had resting on the long white table in front of us, flicking through the pages until she found a blank one. Her attention then turned to me, and the glint in her maple-toned eyes signalled she was not about to interrogate me but comfort me. Something that I’d never believed was possible in this kind of environment until today.
‘What happened when you closed your eyes, Mark? Where did you go?’
A part of my brain felt an urge to retreat into my shell and withhold my inner battle from an actual human being. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified at the prospect of revealing my demons to Dr Philippa, through fear that in five minutes time, doctors and nurses armed with straight jackets would walk into the room and drag me away from the world forever. I could feel the Faceless Tormentor trying to convince me this is what would happen, almost whispering in my ear.
‘Say everything’s fine. Give in to just one more.’
Dr Philippa continued to wait, and I became aware that I’d taken more time to answer than she’d expected, which accelerated the choices laid out before me.
Comfortable torture, or uncomfortable freedom?
I’d lived through comfortable torture all my life and now my body was tired of it. Whatever uncomfortable freedom looked like was still a mystery to me, but it had to be better than the life I was living now. I took a deep breath and stuck my chest out.
‘I didn’t go anywhere, really. I closed my eyes and all I could see was black. It felt like I was trapped and couldn’t move, as if chains were wrapped around me. My demon, my Faceless Tormentor appeared to me as my father. He was the one man I always listened to growing up, treating every word that left his lips as gospel. When he died a decade ago, I felt completely lost. I thought I’d lost the one person in the world who understood me and could help me deal with my troubles. He appeared out of the darkness and try to convince to give up again, after two years of trying to recover.’
‘Trying to recover from what?’ Dr Philippa asked me, crossing her legs.
‘I’m an alcoholic, Doc, and I have been for the past twenty years. I first started drinking when I was fifteen, and my life has fallen apart from there. I drank every night, missing important days like birthdays, anniversaries, exams. All my other troubles seemed to disappear when I hit the bottle. I used it as an escape, and I encouraged other people to drink to solve their problems. That’s something I’ll regret for the rest of my life because drink has killed three important people in my life. It’s taken over to such a degree that I now know I can’t carry on like this. My body won’t take it anymore, and I don’t want to die, even though I probably deserve to.’
Dr Philippa scribbled down everything I was saying, turning onto a new page and crafting her notes. She was writing with such enthusiasm and intent that it puzzled me. I’d always thought of therapists as dreary and monotone, with degrees from either Oxford or Cambridge spread across their office as decoration. Dr Philippa was different. There were no degrees, only family photos of holidays, and friends, and animals. Happy memories that seemed a distant achievement to someone like me.
She snapped her notebook shut. A noise that thumped against my ears and startled me. She leaned back in her chair and locked her hands around her right knee, making sure she sat up straight, as if an important announcement was due.
‘I know a lot of doctors and therapists probably say this, Mark, but it needs to be said. I know exactly what you are going through, and that’s why I’m going to help you.’
I scoffed rather arrogantly and shook my head.
‘How can you possibly know what I’m going through, Doc? You have no idea…’
‘No, Mark,’ she said, cutting through my words as if her tongue was a knife, ‘I know.’
And then I saw it, behind her sturdy and professional exterior, hidden within those sympathetic eyes. There was the same pain that had plagued me for the past twenty years. The same Faceless Tormentor and its presence had lingered inside her, as it now lingered inside of me. We were strangers who were partners, both fighting the same evil, just at different points in our journey. I felt rather guilty for scoffing now.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Forgive me.’
Dr Philippa smiled.
‘There’s no need for that, Mark. I know this is only our first session together, and you are by no means out of the woods yet. But I want you to know that you will be out of them someday. It might not seem like it, but there is a path within those trees that will lead you to a place you never thought reachable. I never used to think it was. Then my husband left me, and I knew there and then the reason. I haven’t touched a drink since, and my life is better for it. I want the same for you, Mark. I want your life to be better.’
The therapy room lost its intimidating presence almost in an instance. Its green colour now seemed inviting, like a modern-day Garden of Eden where my own rebirth could take place. Where my salvation could be achieved. I noticed the time on the clock behind the doctor and stood from my chair.
‘Same time next week?’ I asked.
She turned and stood, straightening her skirt. She accompanied me to the door and placed a hand on my shoulder. A symbolic gesture, I thought, to show that I had somewhere to turn to.
‘If you need me before this time next week, call me Mark. I’m very proud of you. You’ve taken the first steps on what will be the greatest adventure of your life.’
I smiled and left without saying a word. I knew she was watching me leave, even though I didn’t have eyes in the back of my head.
The beaming hot sun warmed my face as I left the surgery. Its light illuminated my whole body, both inside and out. I walked away from Dr Philippa’s room, away from any room in fact, for the first time in twenty years, knowing my urge for just one more was starting to disappear.