This story is by Anja Sagan and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
A bell sounded to end the group meditation. Participants, the “Lower Levels” as they were called, slowly began to get up from the floor to take up their belongings and leave.
Anne, a thirty something woman with disheveled hair had been one of a group of people assisting with the meditation. During the entire time, she had been visibly struggling.
The other meditation leaders glowered at her. The leader Faith, turned to address the people leaving, with a forced smile, “Remember to do your daily meditations. See you next week.”
Anne had joined this group several years before. At first, this spiritual community seemed like an answered prayer. She loved the first few levels of the training but now she couldn’t keep up. She couldn’t even keep herself together, let alone help others.
Faith, the fifty-something leader turned her cold, dark eyes to Anne, “We have enough work keeping the lower levels in place during these meetings. We can’t be babysitting you!”
The others nodded in agreement.
“But I just…I’m sorry.” Anne said.
Faith’s voice was adamant, “You’re not allowed at these meetings anymore. Do I make myself clear?”
Anne didn’t look up, but nodded and tears streamed down her face.
She heard them get up and leave.
Without their help, Anne knew she was in deep trouble.
Weeks later, Anne was at work administering a test for a group of fifty people. She suddenly felt dizzy and all the crazy shields and meditations she had been taught, crumbled along with her sanity. She had to be taken home and go on extended sick leave.
Months later, she was in a mental hospital. A cuff was being tightened around her arm as the nurse pressed the rubber bulb to take her blood pressure.
The doctors wanted to know how her body was handling the new medications.
A fragment of a conversation from years before kept repeating in her head, “The greatest gifts can come from our greatest adversities.”
Each time the words repeated, she felt a stab of self-admonition.
That was only true for people who did the ‘inner work’ on themselves.
A cold stethoscope found its way onto Anne’s back. The nurse, whose dangling ID card read “Joy Parker” told her to breathe in.
Nurse Joy Parker didn’t look a mental patient in the eye, she was there to do her rounds and collect a paycheck, much like the majority of nurses and doctors on that ward.
Anne breathed in an exaggerated breath and slowly let it out.
“Again.” Nurse Parker said, shifting the stethoscope to another part of Anne’s back.
“A nurse will be back this afternoon to monitor your vitals, stay here after lunch until they come.” Nurse Parker said as she released the pressure and removed the cuff. She put the stethoscope back around her neck and wheeled the apparatus out of the room.
Anne was left alone. Her roommate spent her time pacing back and forth in the common room, playing with her hair and talking to herself until a nurse came to bring her her medication, to meal time or bed.
Without something else to distract her, Anne become acutely aware of the cacophony of voices in her head. She stared blankly at a dirty scuff mark on the wall across from her.
Pangs of despair gripped her as the events of her past failures played over and again in her head. She could still hear the voice of Faith, the cult leader, admonishing her. The words coursed through her like bolts of electricity.
“This training is not for cowards like you who refuse to do the work.” The memory of Faith said. Anne didn’t want to face the fact that it was a cult, but it was.
The image switched to a memory of another person from the community named Cora. She had long, immaculately kept dreadlocks. Five tarot cards were arranged on the table for Anne’s reading.
Cora turned the first card over,”This is your present situation. The Seven of Swords, The Thief. A card of rites of passage and mental challenges because it’s reversed. You’re slipping. You’re draining energy from people all around you. There is imbalance and chaos all around you.“
She turned the next card, “This shows what is at work in your unconscious, the Ten Of Wands. You are avoiding responsibility and making it difficult for others. Like Faith says – in Level 6 you have to do your work, it’s not up to the upper levels to do it for you. You’ve gotta find a way out of this.”
She turned a third card, “This is the immediate future, The Tower card, another one in the reversed position. What you have built your life upon is based on falsehood. See? People are jumping to their deaths from the burning windows – too afraid to face the outcome of their choices.”
She turned over the last card, “This is the outcome. The Devil – reversed too. Whoa, you’re in serious trouble, girl. You want others to solve your problems for you. You’re becoming addicted to stealing people’s energy, revelling in it. I see it consuming you completely.”
She had been lazy and had not fought the spiritual battle she was trained to fight. She dropped her protective shields, which was the spiritual equivalent of committing suicide and had condemned her soul.
It was right after that reading she started to hear a disembodied laughter and then a host of voices started talking in her head. They berated her and assailed her, “You are a suicide…You dropped your shields.”
They went on like a tape loop, “They warned you. You were such a coward. You didn’t do the work. Now the Devil has your soul.”
Anne ‘s thoughts returned to the hospital room where she was.
How could she have let this happen? She closed her eyes but couldn’t cry. She was made completely numbed by the psychiatric medications. She felt like a lifeless, rubber doll.
There could be no more hope of recovery without access to her emotions. She had always been told, “You need to feel, to heal.”
She fell back into the narrative in her head and remembered how, years ago she had tried desperately to get better when she learned she was pregnant. Now her son was almost four years old and she was in an institution.
She saw her son’s beautiful face in her memory, his coming had felt like she had been given a purpose to live. To be the mother he deserved.
She felt the slightest hint of sensation, it was only the profoundly painful thoughts that could make her feel anything anymore.
The days stretched into weeks much that same way, until one morning Anne received a call from her father through the nurses desk. He had been in hospital for months and sounded very weak.
“Darling, please come see me.” He said, his words came out slurred but intelligible.
“But Dad I can’t. I don’t want to hurt you.” She said.
“I don’t believe in any of that, anyway I don’t care. You’re my daughter and I love you.” He said.
There was a silent pause.
“Come see me please, darling. I don’t know how much longer I can hang on.”
The pain of that reality jolted her. Even through the numbness, she suddenly felt the pain in her heart with all she had put him through.
“Okay Daddy. But not today, tomorrow morning first thing I will come. Have mom come pick me up.” She said.
She stared blankly at the floor as she hung up the receiver. She had become a monster.
The next morning, Anne woke up and went through the motions of getting ready to go out, got into her street clothes and went to sign the paperwork for her day pass.
As she approached the nurse’s station, the one nurse who really cared for Anne called to her from behind the Plexiglas window.
“Hon, I was just coming to get you. Please come with me.” She said. Her face looked strained.
“Oh no, sorry I really gotta go – I still need to sign out. I’m meeting my mom downstairs in five minutes.” Anne said.
“There are some people here to see you.” The nurse said.
“What?” Anne asked.
The nurse came through the heavy security door into the hallway with Anne and they walked together.
Something was up.
Anne started to feel nauseated.
The nurse led Anne to the room for private family visits.
The nurse opened the door and Anne’s heart sank into her stomach.
The room was filled with the few people she still knew, and all of them wore deep expressions of sadness.
They didn’t have to say a word.
Her father was dead.
He had died during the night. This man who had been her childhood hero – who had always been there for her throughout her life, done so many things for her – was dead. She had not even had the chance to say goodbye.
The shock of the news hung heavily on her and she sank even lower over the following weeks. She had killed him, she had depleted his energy levels so much that he had died.
One morning, weeks after her father had passed, Anne sat in the exercise / activity room of the ward, surrounded by aging and abused equipment. There was an ancient rotary dial phone hanging on the wall in front of her.
She hadn’t slept at all that night, the meds were not strong enough to purge the fear of her impending electroshock treatment scheduled for that morning at 9 am.
She had been reassured by the doctors that this could be the answer to all her problems. This treatment had been renamed electro-convulsive therapy and now used a much lower voltage than when it first came out and had had some promising results in the more severe cases.
Without warning, the cacophony of voices in her head abated and a gentle female voice spoke to her like she was a real person sitting next to her in the room, “No. This is not for you.”
She sat bolt upright and the exhaustion she felt, began to lift.
The voice continued, “Find a Shamanic healer.”
“Okay.” Anne said out loud to the empty room.
She grabbed the receiver and dialed her roommate, Ruth, who was taking care of her son while she was in hospital.
“Okay. Here’s what you do now. Go to the nurse’s station. You signed yourself in voluntarily so tell them you are declining the treatment. Tell them you are leaving of your own accord and that I am coming to pick you up at 9.” Ruth said.
Two days later, Anne sat in the passenger seat of her own car, Ruth was driving.
Anne had an almost giddy feeling inside her as they returned home from her first session with the Shamanic healer. She could feel her sense of humour returning and she made a joke that had Ruth almost in tears.
“That’s my Anne coming back!” Ruth said as she enthusiastically shook Anne’s shoulder, so exuberantly that the whole car zig-zagged.
There was still some numbness and Anne knew there was still a long way to go, but there was a hope in her heart. Hope for an outcome she would never have believed possible. Her son would have the mother he deserved and she would do everything in her power to get there and this time she had the courage to make it happen.
Ruth made arrangements for her to see a cult deprogrammer in the United States and Anne knew deep inside that she was on her way.
That night Anne slept deeply through the entire night, something she had not done in years.