I entered this in the CBC Non Fiction Prize. While I didn’t place in the long list, that’s all good as I can now share it with all of you.
The world had fallen around me.
The dark forest had sprung up around almost without noticing. Everywhere I looked, I saw the shadows of the trees along the walls. I could see the shadows of crows as they flew from tree to tree.
It had been like this since the diagnosis. I had thought I was okay. I was not. I had gone so far into myself that I don’t know where I ended or where the multiple sclerosis began. I had no idea who I was anymore. My body was completely unknown to me and every action felt foreign, as if someone else was operating my body. I didn’t know how far the forest went within me. I checked my pockets for bread crumbs and hoped the birds were on a gluten free diet.
I wanted to distract myself from the whisper of the trees. It was becoming too alluring to walk amongst its branches and trees that never bore fruit. I was starting to look forward to the shadows of the leaves. They felt like a caress of a lover, someone that understood what I was when I could not.
Max Shadow sat watching me, a bemused expression on his face. “What do you think you’re trying to do?” He said, his voice dripping in derision. He was the embodiment of the MS within me. As a writer, I had mistakenly thought that if something had a name, I could fight it, that I had power over it. I could beat it. I had pulled him out of my imagination, but he was more powerful than me. He was the worst thing to come out of the forest. “You don’t think you can just walk away, do you?” He let out a little laugh. “We almost had you, Jamieson. Almost. If only you had taken the pills.” He sighed. “Just think, all it would have taken is that handful of pills and you would have experienced sweet oblivion.”
Though he sat in shadows, the dark forest whispering around him, I could see his teeth flashing in the dark. “Don’t worry.” He said. “There’s still time. We’ll have you yet. We both know that broken men belong in the forest.”
The truth of it was that I almost believed him.
I wanted to do something, anything to distract myself and to quiet his voice. I tried cleaning my apartment. This should have been easy. Before the MS, I loved to clean. I would think through plotlines of the novel I was working on while I cleaned while listening to loud music. Now everything was a battle. I couldn’t walk without a cane and when I wasn’t using it, I had to balance myself with my hands against the walls or risk falling over. This was my life. Everything was a battle and now I was fighting a war against myself. I didn’t care, I needed the distraction, needed to find a way outside of myself.
The wind from the dark forest increased, wrapping me in a soft breeze. I could hear the chatter of the crows and the almost rhythmic beat of the forest that matched the beating of my heart. I began cleaning, haphazardly, just to shut everything up, to keep the crows from shrieking at me, to stop Max Shadow’s soft laughter. I picked things up and moved them, I tried to wipe surfaces, but even that was difficult what with having to keep my balance. I wasn’t cleaning very well, and I could feel myself about to break.
“You really are rubbish at everything you do, aren’t you Jamieson?” Max said.
Trying to ignore him, I turned away from him and tried to clean the fridge. I could see fingerprints on the fridge door and there was a thin layer of dust over the whole thing. I grabbed a rag and wet it, turning back to the fridge.
“That’s it, Jamieson. Clean off the dust, but that’s all your body is full of, isn’t it? No wonder no one wants you. Who would want a broken man?”
I made a rough swipe with the cloth, a guttural sound coming out of my mouth, and I knocked a bunch of magnets off the fridge door. I looked at them, lying on the floor so colourful but somehow so far away. I had to pick them up one at a time, afraid of losing my balance and falling over.
One magnet drew my eyes, however. It was a little yellow magnet that my mother had given to me quite a few years ago; I hadn’t looked at it in some time but out of all of the magnets, this one drew my gaze.
I bent down slowly to pick it up, making sure that I was propped against the fridge and holding on to the door. I picked it up and held it in the palm of my hand. I looked at it, so sunny and yellow and bright. There were six words written in black. They said: My life is up to me.
I held that magnet and thought about what my life had become: I had almost taken my own life. My love life was non-existent because I was too afraid of rejection, too afraid of what people would see when they looked at me. I was so afraid that I let a man who loved me hurt me as it seemed better than being alone with the wasteland that was my body.
More than that, I had to love myself, even just a tiny bit, before I could love someone else. Or at the very least, I had to make peace with what I had become.
I was in danger of losing my job. I was terribly depressed and still in the depths of the forest. I could hear the trees whispering to me during the day. Even when I couldn’t see them, they were there, and I could feel the tree branches scratching me on the inside of my skin.
“The trees have tasted your fears, Jamieson.” Max said. “You’ve always carried them within you, but you’ve finally let them free. They want to welcome you. Just one bottle of pills, Jamieson. That’s all it would take.”
I had cut out all of my friends, people that had been my family. That was my choice as I believed that no one should have to put up with me, let alone myself. I had no social life. Instead, I went to work, barely made it through the day and then I would come home and hide inside my apartment. My world was the walls of the place that I called home and it was here that I could hear the leaves of the trees the strongest.
“And isn’t that how it should be?” Max taunted. “Who would even want to bother with a broken man like you? You’re so weak.”
In a way, I had died, even though I was still living and breathing. I had let the disease take everything from me, had given it every part of myself to try and appease it, though it did no good. I pretended I was okay, but the truth was, I was a ghost of my true self.
“You were always a ghost, Jamieson, though you didn’t know it. Who would notice someone so insignificant and broken?” I believed him. Dear God, I believed him.
Looking down at the floor, I saw not magnets but pieces of glass that had been my chalice, the vessel that I carried within myself that held me together, that held everything that I was, my spirit and my joy. It lay in pieces on the floor, glittering at me in the dim light.
I looked down at the little yellow magnet again. The words stared back at me: My life is up to me. I worked at shaping my mouth to form the words: “My life is up to me.” I whispered. I tried again, a little louder: “My life is up to me!”
Max laughed. “You think so? Your life has already been decided for you. You don’t have one. If the Multiple Sclerosis has taken everything else, if you’ve given all that you have to me, why not give me this one final thing? There’s a bottle of pills in your bag, Jamieson. It would be so simple.” He smiled. “They would taste like candy.”
In that moment, despite the allure that Max had laced his words with, I made a decision that would change the direction of my life. I was not broken. I deserved more than this, more than the forest would offer me. If I didn’t like something, I had to change it. The only thing was I had no idea where to begin, where to start looking for help or how to put the chalice back together again.
It didn’t matter. I had made the decision. I would change the road I was on and choose to walk along another.
Max looked at me with a face filled with horror, knowing that something had shifted inside of me. “What are you doing?” He hissed at me.
“What I should have done a long time ago.” I whispered.
I imagined the branches of the dark forest reaching out to grab hold of him, of that piece of myself. The branches pulled him back into the shadows with a loud cry that shook the walls and reverberated inside of me. All that was left was the whispering of the trees. The forest would remain for a while, it would take time for it to disappear and maybe the dark forest would never go away completely. Max Shadow would be back, too. He was part of me as were the trees of the dark forest. It didn’t matter. Contrary to what Max had thought, I was not broken. I was worth more than this and I had a choice to make.
I would choose to live.