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Always There

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He's always been there, ever since I can remember. Every time I went outside to play, I'd see him, lurking on the edge of my peripheral vision. He would always be still, staring at me, his cold, black eyes gazing into my face. He never used to come close to me, not when I was small. I would always see him across the street from my house, just standing there, watching me through the window.

But that didn't last for long. As I grew older, he started to move. He seemed to get progressively closer every time I saw him, from across the street to the edge of the road, to the pavement, to my parent's car, to right outside my window, until he finally came inside the house. I was only six or seven back then, and I was terrified. I was afraid to be on my own in my room, I developed terrible anxiety, I was afraid to enter the house, and I started getting night terrors. Nobody else knew why I was behaving so strangely. They couldn't see him. They didn't understand why I was so scared all the time. In the end, my parents took me to a doctor. He diagnosed me with "severe separation anxiety" and suggested that the "shadow man" I kept talking about was simply the result of an overactive imagination. I learned to keep my mouth shut after that, knowing that no one would believe me, and my parents stopped worrying. They thought everything was fine.

I was about eleven when the shadow man started talking to me. I was used to him being there by then. I would often wake up to find him standing over my bed at night, or I would look in the mirror to see him standing behind me, but that didn't bother me so much any more. He never hurt me, or interfered with what I was doing. He would just watch, following me around wherever I went, lurking in the corner of my eye. I never felt safe around him, but I didn't feel in danger either. I knew he wouldn't go away, at least not for a while. So I started talking to him. I wanted to know why he was always there, why he would watch me for hours on end. He never really spoke back, at least not audibly, but if I asked him something or tried to talk, I could hear his response in my head. As time went on, we talked more and more. He seemed to know everything about me. He knew all about my friends and family, and if I asked him questions about them he would always answer with pinpoint accuracy. He was never threatening back then, or harmful. He wasn't as scary as he used to seem. Slowly, without meaning to, I started to trust him.

I was maybe fifteen when he started asking for favours. Well, not favours as such - but his knowledge came at a cost. It started off small, like "I'll tell you this if you talk to me for an extra hour" or "I'll tell you this if you give me that". Gradually, the stakes would increase. He gave me instructions, tasks that I had to do, rules that I had to live by. I knew I should have stopped, but my thirst for knowledge and curiosity was so strong that I agreed to his terms. With every piece of information he gave me, he made me more intrigued, more desperate to find out more. I didn't realise back then how powerful a hold he had over me. He was slowly weaselling his way into my confidence, and into my mind.

As the number of questions increased and the favours I asked for grew bigger, he gave me more and more tasks to complete. When I forgot to do them or did something wrong, he started punishing me. He would never touch me, but he could control me like a puppet, manipulating my limbs and only allowing me to speak his words. He would watch me like a hawk, waiting for me to slip up or make a mistake, then as soon as he could, he would lead me into harming myself, or even hurting others. He would burn my skin, give me headaches, trip me, make me throw up or black out. He had endless ways of causing me pain, but no matter how much he hurt me, I would inevitably mess up or ask for something or forget to complete a task. I became more withdrawn and sullen, hiding away in my room as much as possible. My grades were slipping and I found it difficult to communicate with others. I kept getting into trouble. My parents thought it was just teenage mood swings and did their best to help, but I kept getting worse. No one knew what to do. 

It got to the point where I was scared to do anything for fear that I'd mess up. He was getting more powerful, his demands increasing every day. I didn't ask for anything from him. I didn't want my debts to increase, I always had so much to do for him. When I tried to get him to stop, he would harm me mentally as well as physically. He tortured me with night terrors and anxiety and suicidal thoughts every moment of the day, up until I broke down and agreed to whatever he wanted me to do. He controlled every aspect of my life. Nobody really knew how bad it was. He made me stop talking to friends, scare my family away, even physically attack people who tried to help. I was completely isolated. He hated it when people tried to come close to me. He wanted me all to himself. I couldn't get away. I had no control over my life any more.

My breaking point came when I tried to get away from him. I couldnt take it any more. I was in crippling pain every moment of the day, I had stopped talking completely, I wouldn't let anyone near me and my whole body was scribbled with self inflicted marks and scars of all shapes and sizes. I had no control of my body or mind. I had lost all hope of being able to live a normal life. I knew there was no recovering from this. I started refusing his orders.

His punishments got even worse than they'd ever been before. I started hallucinating, unable to even control what I saw. Visions of my worst fears would plague me day and night, an unrelenting sense of pure terror ran through every fibre of my being and my whole body felt like it was burning with indescribable amounts of pain. He took over my body completely, forcing me to act on his wishes. I prayed for the sweet release of death, but he wouldn't let me go. I was unable to live, yet unable to die. I was in my own personal hell.

Then one day, it all stopped.

I woke up, with tears of exhaustion rolling down my scarred, battered cheeks, expecting another day of endless psychological torture and unimaginable pain. I opened my eyes and took a shaky, rasping breath in, waiting to see him standing over my bed, or hear him give me his next command. But he wasn't there.

I didn't know why he had left or for how long, but after I realised he was truly gone, I burst into tears of relief. I cried for days and days. I couldn't believe I was free. I found my parents and hugged them for hours, telling them I was okay, that everything was going to be fine. I didn't tell them about the shadow man. Who would believe me?

I lived out the next few months with intense paranoia. Although he had gone, the damage he had done to my life would take many years to repair. I spent some time in a regular hospital, getting my "self inflicted" wounds seen to, and a longer period in a psych hospital, rebuilding my life, learning how to live again. I made friends, went back to school, went to university, got a job... Almost no one in my life knows what happened to me when I was younger, and hopefully they never will.

That was over a decade ago now. I have a steady, well paid job, a nice house, a group of great friends, and most importantly, a husband and a young daughter. All of us are happy and leading normal lives. I love my life, and I love my family. I knew everything was going to be okay. Until my daughter came up to me, slipped her hand in mine and asked, "Mummy, who's that shadow man?"