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Mental Health

Thief of Joy

The previous owners said it was haunted but the real estate agent assured us that was decidedly not the case. “The truth is, that the weather sucks over here,” she giggled, “and some people just have a hard time with slightly less sun than the average California neighborhood.” While “slightly less sun” may have deterred other buyers, Mom was buoyed by the opportunity for a change of scenery. She thought that the giant house we lived in with Dad felt too big, dreary and empty for the two of us. A low lit neighborhood was no deterrent to my mother in her attempt to be a beacon of positivity in my life. 

What Mom didn’t know then was the history of the neighborhood. The cul de sac we moved to had six houses that were always swallowed by the mist. The sky would always be a dull shade of gray and most days I could barely see the mailbox from the window. I would come to realize that the residents would never last long, but the houses always stayed the same. House one would always be Mr. & Mrs. this-is-our-first-home, house two would be a military family, house three would be the-family-with-too-many-children, house four would be the formerly upper middle class family after a life altering event (in our case, a mother-daughter duo after divorce), house five was the-parents-who’s-baby-just-left-for-college, and house six was always the same resident, Ms. Westenra. A depressing, yet eclectic, collection of people. 

The true irony was that Mom moved us in an effort to shake things up and get me out of the foggy state I had been in since Dad left. She was worried that I was depressed and truthly I was. I wasn’t a “too depressed to leave my bed type”; more of the “too dissociated to care about my surroundings or myself.” Dad’s leaving created a huge vacuum. I couldn’t understand how Mom got up every morning and why she got ready. I wasn’t sure what the point of caring about my day to day was if people could just throw it all away on a whim. I was suffocating under the weight of my loss and it led to a listless existence. 

If I was going to be in an “emotional fog” as my therapist put it, why not be in a physical one as well? So on September 1st we moved in. Mom got to work unpacking the moment we walked in the door. From behind a four foot tall stack of brown Uhaul boxes with bubble wrap flying in every direction, my ever the optimist mother asked “Aren’t you excited, Joy? Once the weather clears up we can go out in the back yard and plant a little garden.” Even within the first few hours I knew Mom would never get her garden. This marshy neighborhood would never allow it. 

That night we climbed into bed, both exhausted, mom from moving and me from watching her buzz around the house putting things away. As I looked at the bedroom I had not bothered to unpack I felt lighter than I had in months. My therapist had mentioned that moving may bring up intense emotions, but so far, I only felt relief. My relief didn’t buoy my spirits, or motivate me to find my sheets, but it did trigger an emotion in me, a flashlight shining through my mental fog. As quickly as it came, the feeling left, weighed down by the day and the suffocating weather. I grabbed the nearest blanket and threw it on my bed to sleep. As I drifted off I stared out my front facing window and peered through the mist. The sky was darker than it had been during the day but the thick fog prevented it from being pitch black. As I closed my eyes, I saw a man, standing in the middle of the entrance to our cul de sac, staring in my window. Promising myself that he must be a shadow, I drifted off to sleep. 

The next morning Mom decided it would be best if we took a gift basket to each of our new neighbors to, in her words, foster community. At this time, house number five was empty so Mom took the first three houses and asked me to take a basket over to the “sweet lady” in house six, Mrs. Westenra. The other houses swapped owners at least annually but Mrs. Westenra was a staple of the neighborhood. Always there and, according to the real estate agent, always a little wacky. I walked up the brick driveway to her door having a mental panic about what I was going to say to this elderly woman that I imagined to be a meek shut in.Taking a deep breath I put on my best fake smile and rang the doorbell. She flew to the door, opened it and immediately told me to put my smile away. “You’re going to make him mad” she hissed, taking the basket from my hands and rummaging through it. I asked her who, and she said “him” while pointing to a collection of sketches on her wall. I felt my stomach drop. Strewn across tables, pinned to the walls, on the couch, were hundreds of sketches of the man I thought I imagined last night. In some sketches he was closer to her house, in others he was in the middle of the road. Each image had a date on it and as she shooed me off her doorstop, snatching the basket from my hand, I felt hollow. She was watching him every night and he was watching her. 

I went home and told my mother about Mrs. Westenra’s strange reaction to my smile but Mom only cared that I had smiled. Beaming from ear to ear she seemed nonplussed about the man in the street. Her only takeaway was that the neighborhood was having a positive effect on me. She was so excited about this minor detail so I decided to let the mysterious shadow man go. Whoever he was, he didn’t seem like he was hurting anybody.  

That night I went to bed amongst my still packed boxes and looked out the window. The man was there, staring intently as ever at my bedroom window. This time he took four steps towards our house and shook his head as if he was reprimanding our house for something. Terrified, I jumped out of bed and ran to the living room. I spent the night on the couch shaking and refused to peak around the Mom’s sunshine yellow curtains. 

I must have passed out in my panic because when I woke up it was morning. I dragged myself back to my room to check the street. The fog was still there but the man was gone. Shaking my head I assumed I must have hallucinated the movements the shadow man had made. I started to rationalize my visions. It must all be in my head. Had my depression had taken a turn to something else? Maybe I was getting a bit claustrophobic in the cloud cover. Either way, I knew something was up. I assumed, as always, that it was just something wrong with me. 

Over the next couple months I never bothered to unpack but I did watch the man. He appeared every day. His presence was unnerving making me too terrified to fall asleep most nights.There was something alluring about the terror his presence brought over me. Like a cold wave of adrenalin; it was a welcome distraction from the emptiness I was feeling. Being afraid was a feeling. Albeit not an ideal feeling, but it seemed a better option than succumbing to the monotony of the gray skies.  

As the hazy days turned to hazy nights I began to pick up on what Mrs. Westenra had shared with me on our first day in the neighborhood. Her warning echoed in my head as I begin to believe that maybe this was real. While I waited for the man to show, I’d look over and watch her sit in her window, living room light on, always sketching the image of the man. Watching her stare directly at him, unrattled, every night made me assume that she knew something the rest of the neighborhood didn’t. She understood the shadow man. Only she knew what made him tick but she had given me a clue with the comment about my smile. I suspected that he hated happiness. To her, my forced smile was a threat and a danger to the neighborhood. During the day I would look over and catch her watching my mom. Lips puckered and hands on her hips it was obvious that Mrs. Westenra was not keen on my mother’s goal to brighten up out plot in this cold neighborhood. She shook her head disapprovingly as my mother carted plant after plant to the yard for the garden. Mom was adamant about not giving in to the doom and gloom of the neighborhood. Mrs. Westenra’s reputation for solitude and stirring trouble with whatever children lived in the neighborhood didn’t make her the ideal candidate to have in my corner but what she lacked in charm she made up for in spirit. 

I tested my theory a couple weeks in. Mom once again was attempting to plant a garden in the muck behind the house she referred to as our backyard. In an attempt to make Mom realize the fog was never going away I decided I might as well give it a name. Still in my tattered pajamas I yelled, “give up mom, Gary is never going away” She looked up with a smile on her face “you’ve named the fog, Gary?”.  As we both broke into fits of giggles I felt a tinge of surprise. Making Mom laugh was easy; it was my laugh that shocked me. 

That night I watched the man slowly take step after step, shaking his head towards our house. I swear the man in the cul de sac was over halfway to our driveway when dawn came.

When I did it intentionally, it was like a game of cat and mouse. On my unintentional good days it was like a bad dream. The rare occasions where I would walk by a mirror and beneath the dark circles from staying up all night and the slouch in my shoulders, I still felt a little glimmer of the girl I used to be or when I picked up an old book and got lost in its pages for the first time in months; those were the nights that gave me goosebumps. In the glow of the mist the man would slowly lumber his way towards the house. His measured steps closing in on me like the fog. When he got close enough to touch the lawn I felt the fog suffocating me. I was never able to remember falling asleep on those nights, the fog held me a choke hold until I passed out. Those were the nights that I was filled with regret, wishing I had felt nothing during the day.

Sleepless nights drove me back in to depression valleys and resparked my anxiety. I struggled to find anything that brought me out of the fog and when it did, I was afraid of what would happen next. Every laugh brought a new thick wave of anxiety. I knew I couldn’t feel joy, even if I wanted to. My state ebbed and flowed after this discovery. I was beneath the fog whether I wanted to be or not. At times it felt suffocating but usually it felt empty.  

After living in the house for six months Mom thought it would be a good idea to have a family game night for the two of us. She ordered pizza, bought the candy’s she thought I liked and pulled out Monopoly. When we lived with Dad we would have game nights often and Monopoly was always our go to. Dad and I were wildly competitive and while Mom noted competition brought out the worst in Dad, she always said it brought out the best in me. While Dad was quick to anger, I got calmer with every one of his expletives. The only thing that gave me away was the glimmer in my eyes. In retrospect, she pulled out the game because she thought I was falling back into my world of nothingness. 

The last couple weeks had been rough. My hair was so dirty it almost felt clean again. I was wearing the same pajamas I wore the night before, and the night before that and well…I honestly wasn’t sure when I changed last. 

Mom pulled out the board, grabbed her usual piece, the cat. As an indecisive person I spent a few minutes debating finally landing on the metal car. The moment I placed the car on the board my heart began to pound as the whirlwind of anxious thoughts kicked up. What if I enjoyed this? The man in the street had been keeping his distance lately but I had been in a slump. Keeping him at a distance seemed to require disengaging with my life, which came naturally to me in my apathetic state. 

Looking back, I think I agreed to play because I was so desperate to feel something that I was willing to let it be fear. Mom was right, competitive games really made me come alive. By the time I had my third property I had forgotten about the man and was having fun. I got wrapped up in collecting the best properties then swooping in on mom until she was almost bankrupt. We played for hours the two of us bantering. My heart pounded as my body warmed up to the fun of the game. At around midnight as I was trying to collect Boardwalk Avenue when Mom made me take a break so she could run to the bathroom. As she walked away I looked around realizing how late it was and thankful that the curtains towards the front of the house were drawn. As I exhaled a sigh of relief I heard a rapt on the door. 

I assumed I was just imagining things but my curiosity got the best of me. The floor creaked as quietly inched my way towards the door. I looked out the peephole and went into a catatonic state. As I hit the ground all I could see was the black iris of an eye staring through me. 

I woke up to the monotonous noise of medical machinery two days later. My sweet sad mother was sitting next to me making promising that she would move us to a brighter neighborhood but I knew it didn’t matter where we went. Even if the man was part of the neighborhood, he was now a part of me like a shadow wherever I went he would be there, watching, waiting to vacuum any ounce of joy from my life.

I sank back into my fog and hoped he would go away.

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by emilybrucesky

Recovering English major trying to make it in the corporate world. Lover of: all things witchy, moving my body, literature, Gilmore Girls, Golden Girls & animals. Seeking to expand my knowledge of Gen Z via TikTok & Euphoria.


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