Hearing Voices

by Corinne Enright


“How long ago did these auditory hallucinations begin, Miss James?”

Dr. Butler looked more or less as Eve had expected: small, heavyset, about fifty, with unkempt hair and beard, massive hands, and a habit of tucking his elbows and chin in when he leaned forward, which was practically always. He even had a couch. Eve had always thought those were a myth.

Punch him in the face, Gloria said in her ear.

Eve pretended not to hear. “About...” she muttered, “about five years.”

Really. Punch him. Right now. Grab his stupid long hair and slam his head into the wall. An image filled Eve’s consciousness. It was Dr. Butler, crouched on the ground, spitting blood and teeth. She could feel how soft his hair would be as it wrapped around her fingers. Shuddering, she opened her hand, then closed it again so that her nails dug into her palm, and was still.

Gloria was furious. Did you hear me? Punch him, you goddamn... you coward... you bitch... you...you... Gloria was prone to those incoherent rages, even more than the others. It was probably, Eve thought —and Gloria heard — because she wasn’t all that eloquent at the best of times.

Eve was aware, over Gloria’s screaming, that Dr. Butler was talking. “Sorry?” she said.

“I said, why didn’t you seek help immediately?”

“Immediately when?”

“When you started hearing voices.” Gloria’s rant was losing steam, so that Eve could think. Sometimes the voices bothered her for so long that she forgot what it was like to think without having to shout over anyone. Still, clear thinking returned every time, and she always thanked God for it when it came.

“It’s hard to, you know, to... to put my finger on... um... when that was.” Eve looked down at her sweatshirt and dirty jeans, and saw that her hands were still clenched. Slowly, she opened them, and wrapped her right hand around the fingers of her left to keep herself from doing it again. Her nails were so long that she had almost broken the skin. She wondered how long it had been since she had cut them. “When I was a kid,” she said, half to herself, “I had imaginary friends. Was that wrong?”

“What do you mean, ‘Was that wrong’?’”

Eve was aware that she hadn’t had a conversation this long in ages. She was forgetting how to string words together.

That’s right, dear, Dora told her. Soon you’ll forget altogether. Your tongue will be as useless as a cavefish’s eyes. It’s going to atrophy. She showed Eve what it would look like, how Eve’s genioglossus would creep forward and broaden, cleaving her tongue to her lower jaw, how her frenulum would shrivel until the tip of her tongue recurved like the Ace of Spades and buckled under, how the sides of the tongue would swell and flatten until they filled the gaps between her teeth.

Eve tried not to flinch, knowing how Dora would gloat if she did, but Dora cackled anyway. Don’t try to lie to me, dear. You don’t know how.

“I mean,” Eve said loudly, “when you’re a kid, right, you get bored on car rides. So you picture someone in the whatsit, the median. Running alongside the car. Using the signs and the trees and all as an obstacle course. Lots of kids do that, right? It’s just like, like a little video game for yourself.”

She paused and looked up at Dr. Butler’s face over her shoulder. His eyes, half-closed in an effort of understanding, quickly opened when he saw her turn. She knew that she wasn’t expressing herself well, but if she didn’t babble she was sure she would sit in silence for hours, waiting for words to come in the right order. Eventually he seemed to realize that something was expected of him and nodded. “Yes, of course. There’s a difference between a mental image and a hallucination. Mental images are, as you said, like a video game. You control their motion.”

“Except when you don’t.”

Dora laughed at her. Except when you’re too weak, you mean.

Dr. Butler frowned. “What?”

“Well, they never did exactly what you told them, did they? Sometimes you wanted them to dodge left, and they dodged right instead. And they got where you wanted them faster than they would have, if they’d done it your way. You’d know about that. It’s probably because of the unconscious or something.”

“Could be,” Dr. Butler said warily. “That’s not a game I ever played, myself.”

He thinks you’re crazy, my dear, Dora whispered to her. I honestly don’t know whether I want him to lock you away. I mean, it would be fairly boring, wouldn’t it? So boring, for both of us. But God knows it’s what you deserve.

Gloria burst out laughing. Goddamn bitch!

Eve and Dora both waited for a moment, to see if she was going to say anything else, but that seemed to be her contribution to the conversation.

“So... so that’s how it started,” Eve stammered, speaking quickly to get a word in edgeways. “Normal stuff. You want to know whether you should, I don’t know, apply for a certain job, right? So you picture your mom talking, and, and she says you should, or you shouldn’t. That’s normal, right?”

Dr. Butler nodded. “Perfectly. That’s just an exercise of imagination.”

“Well, one day I did that. I don’t remember why. But partway through...” She stopped and swallowed. “It didn’t sound like Mom anymore.”

In defiance of the unspoken rules embodied by the couch, she was watching him. Her neck was twisted as far as it would turn, and her chin rested on the plush arm. She admired his quick, precise movements, the tension in his shoulders, the way his pen hovered over his pad when he wasn’t writing. She knew that she had taken to moving as though her bones were loosely held together with chains.

“How many other personalities inhabit your mind?”

Eve thought that was a strange way of putting it, as though her skull were a cramped Manhattan apartment. She decided that he was probably right. That was how it felt sometimes. “Three, other than me.”

“Are you sure?”

Christ, just kill him already, Gloria moaned.

Eve turned around again. “Yes.”

“Are there any gaps in your memory?”

Eve thought back. The last few months were a blur. She had graduated from college with a BA in drama; she had used Craigslist and a small mountain of borrowed money to rent a room in a rundown Bronx brownstone; she had scoured the city for acting gigs and steady jobs, speaking to dozens of directors and managers; her mind had been taken over by strange voices.

Somewhere in there, she had started to have trouble sleeping. More than once, she had gotten up and dressed after midnight to take a Q train into the city for a long, aimless walk along the Hudson. The fresh air did her good, and it was fun to watch the late-night passersby, but her short-term memory would always be nonexistent the next morning. “Yes.”

“Are all three of your other personalities twenty-two-year-old Caucasian women?”

Eve paused, taken aback. She had never thought to assign an age to either Dora or Gloria. They weren’t people; they just were. “They’re not me,” she said cautiously.

“That wasn’t my question.”

Why would anyone think we were women? Dora mused.

As if on cue, Lionel emitted his usual deep thrum. He never spoke and was neither particularly male nor especially human, but Eve understood that he was an intelligence not her own. He’d never given his name. She called him Lionel after a delicatessen on Avenue L.

Eve ignored her. “No. One may be male, and I think one of them is older than me.”

Dora burst out laughing. Was that at me, my dear? Oh, you’re so young. You have no idea what age is.

Dumb animal, Gloria growled. You’re the youngest one here by a wide margin, dear, a very wide margin indeed. And just for the record, aside from you and dear Doctor Butler, I’m the youngest one in this room.

“I’m sorry, did you say something?” Eve half-shouted.

“I asked if you’ve ever initiated conversation with them.”

“What? No. Of course not.”

“But you engage when they speak to you?”

“No!”

“Perhaps you should. They might respond well. Surely it’s better to speak to them, to maintain a dialogue, than to have them shouting at you all the time while you try to ignore them.”

For a moment, Eve was shocked into silence. When her voice returned, however, it was loud and strident. “I’m not crazy! I know they’re not real, all right? You don’t have to... to trick me. I’ll take pills. I just want them gone.”

“There are no pills,” Dr. Butler said bluntly. “If you have dissociative identity disorder, which I’m pretty sure you have, then there is no medication designed to help you. I could give you some antidepressants, anxiolitics, or antipsychotics, and hope that one of them helps.”

Eve winced.

“But as you’ve already guessed, the side-effects would be horrific. In the short term, the best thing you can do is try to get along with the people in your head and, ultimately, learn to control them.”

Eve lay back and swore. “I can’t talk to them,” she said after a moment. “I mean, I can, but they’re not going to talk back. You don’t understand. They’re not that kind of voices.”

Dr. Butler leaned forward still further. “In spite of what you think, Eve, they are you. They’re different aspects of your personality, and they’ll have different goals, goals which you might not be consciously aware that you have. Just ask them what they want and see if you can find enough common ground to move forward. Ask now.”

There was a silence in which Eve wondered whether calling the first psychoanalyst in the phone book had been a good idea. At length, she decided to cooperate, if only because it was too late to ask for a refund. “Dora?” she snapped aloud. “What do you want?”

To her profound surprise, there was no answer for a moment. Then there was a curious rush of air. It took Eve a minute to realize that Dora had sighed. This is it, then? This is how you imagine you can control me? You?

“What did she say?” Dr. Butler asked.

“She asked if I’m trying to control her,” Eve murmured, and heard a pen scratching behind her before the high drone of Dora’s voice drowned it out:

You couldn’t even control the boy in the median. My dear, the boy in the median had no face. He couldn’t speak. He was barely a character at all, barely a breach in the wall between reality and unreality. But something tried to force its way through. And, for Christ’s sake, my girl, you almost let it!

“That’s not an answer.” Eve’s fingers were drumming a tattoo on the cushions. “Why are you bothering me?”

Here’s a better question: Why not? You were twenty-two when I first saw you. You were living alone for the first time in your life. You were nervous and frightened and so very weak.

“What are you talking about?”

All things strive, my dear. Under rocks and deep within caves, you can find pale seedlings bent at right angles, trying to reach the light. In the black water at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, even now, tube worms are clustering around vents for just a taste of their warmth.

Uncharacteristically, Dora’s voice was rising. What do we want? What does anything want? We want to survive!

You’re trying to control us? Gloria screeched. Stupid bitch. You’re nothing. A worm.

There was a deep thrum, thrum, thrum in the recesses of Eve’s mind; Lionel was awake and angry. Eve’s neck twisted sharply, her eyes slamming shut. All three of them were speaking at once, unbearably close, and she felt as though a knife were being driven into her frontal lobe.

Dora was shouting:

Listen to him! He doesn’t remember being alive, and even he would kill to taste life again. Honestly, Gloria and I barely remember, either. With every passing day down there, it got harder and harder to remember what it was like to sit in the sun, or even breathe. You don’t miss breathing until it’s gone.

WE WON’T GO BACK! Gloria screeched. WE WON’T!

We will drink from life, even if we have to take up your whole mind to do it. Dora was bellowing over Gloria’s shouts and Lionel’s rising rhythm.

Do you understand? Eve screamed, her limbs stiffening and thrusting outward so suddenly that she was thrown from the couch. We’ve been dead, young lady, and it’s no fun. It’s no—

All three voices fell silent as Eve’s head hit the floor. A moment later, her limbs began to twitch wildly, her head thrashing from side to side. Dr. Butler jumped to his feet and, after a moment’s panicked dithering, found his phone and called 911.

By the time he had gotten through to an operator, requested an ambulance, and spelled the name of his street three times, the room had fallen silent. Eve was asleep. Her lips were a deep blue-black color, but they were open and admitting air in ragged, audible gasps.

Feeling useless, Dr. Butler knelt and examined her scalp. There were no cuts or bruises that he could see, and he wasn’t sure how else to check for concussion, so he picked her up and put her back onto the couch, propping her head up with a cushion as if she were a child with a cold.

She seemed to be snoring. At least, small noises were escaping from her mouth between gulps of air. It sounded almost as if she were saying, “No fun at all... It’s no fun at all...”


Copyright © 2016 by Corinne Enright

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