Mom takes me to Mental Health Land because she thinks it will help. I shit you not, that’s its name. It’s like any other theme park for the most part—there are rides and games and food. Really, they have anything to put you in a good mood so you’ll stay awhile and spend your money. My therapist told her it might be a good idea, so she packed me and my little brother in the car and her boyfriend, Eddie, drove us all down the highway towards the turrets, rollercoasters, and bright flags emblazoned with smiling children and adults standing high over the park.
She tells us to meet her back at the Bipolar-Coaster around noon for lunch while she and Eddie head off to the Natural High, a tracked ride that only goes up before leveling off and looping back to the boarding station, but a few floors higher. The irony rests in the long walk down the multiple flights of stairs it takes to get back to the main park. When I pointed this out to her she said she’d enjoy the extra exercise and that her thighs have never looked better. Eddie winked at me as she said this, and I had to hold in the urge to vomit. I watch as Eddie and my Mom walk off, Eddie’s arm around her waist, and listen to the screams of the riders gliding down the Bipolar-Coaster’s second steepest drop. My brother stands silently beside me watching the cars climb the next hill before their plummet. At the end of each ride there’s an educational video about the disorder they’re based off of. I did a lot of research about this place, but it hasn’t made coming here any easier.
I look down at my brother and shrug. I ask him what he wants to do, and he says he doesn’t care, so I tell him to just make a decision, and he says we’re here for me in the first place so he shouldn’t have to choose what we do, and I have nothing to say that, so I ask if he just wants to get some ice cream, and he says fine, so we turn and head back towards the main entrance of the park where most of the restaurants are. As we walk he strides beside me, picking at his chin where a scab is trying to reform since he’s already ripped it off a few times. I tell him to stop, and he tells me to shut up, and I feel for a moment like I want to cry. I think of Mom and Eddie standing in the line for the Natural High, where Eddie is probably making not-so-clever innuendos about how my mom gives him a high. He’s never had enough tact to be discreet; he’s always under the impression that my brother and I are never paying attention, but Mom also never tells him to stop. I have heard enough to create a dialogue in my head of them standing together and Eddie whispering in her ear with his hand down her back. They are one of those couples, and it never seems to occur to them that no one wants to see what they’re putting on display.
Most of the people here don’t look happy despite the tons of smiling workers milling around handing out free balloons and pamphlets. Large bouquets of multicolor Mylar happy faces bob through the crowd and people in varying emotional states pass by. Some look sad, some are laughing, some look like they don’t want to be bothered. Others are glancing around as if worried that everyone else is watching them and still others walk by with a look on their face like they are really, really trying. Like they want to be happy, so they try their best to look happy by arranging their faces into delicate smiling masks. But their eyes look really tired, as if the effort is taking all the energy they have. It’s kind of like school, but maybe I’m imagining things.
A young woman with rosy cheeks thrusts a blue balloon into my hand with a pamphlet that talks about why its important to live to see tomorrow. I raise my eyebrows at her, but she’s already trying to hand my brother a green balloon attached to a pamphlet that pictures a sullen youth looking moodily up at us. My brother shrugs her off, leaving the pamphlet in her outstretched hand, but she just smiles after him. I try to give her an apologetic look, but just then a girl with a heavy face walks past looking tearful and the woman hurries after her, untangling the balloon strings and pamphlets as she goes. On one side of the park a hulking black building looms against the sky. Sticking out of the top is what looks like a mountain peak. Written across the building is the legend: Existential Dread Mountain: A Wild Ride Through Your Own Personal Darkness and Despair! On the website, it says it’s important to make light of your mental illness when you can. It’s supposed to make it feel more manageable, less overwhelming. Part of me wonders if this place started all those memes about wanting to kill yourself and how funny it is to have depression, all of which are also on the site above hotline numbers for suicide and self-harm prevention, as well as references for when you “just want to talk to someone.”
I don’t mean to sound so cynical. I really don’t. But this place makes me feel queasy in more ways than one. It’s over bright and overcrowded, as if it’s packed with other parents making a feeble attempt to make their kids act normal again. I wonder how many parkgoers are here on recommendations from their therapists, and how many have therapists who really care and think this can make a difference, and if the whole thing isn’t just a load of bullshit that the therapists push because they get paid for each referral.
I look sideways and see my brother looking at Existential Dread appraisingly. When he notices me watching him, he quickly turns away. I ask him if he wants to ride it, he says ride what, and I motion towards the mountain. He says he thought we were getting ice cream. I tell him we can do both if he wants, but he ignores me. I don’t know why I’m trying so hard with him when we’re supposed to be here to make me feel better. See, I had a panic attack last weekend at a party. It was just another attack after a long line of freak-outs that have been popping up the last few months since all the bad stuff happened with dad—at school, at home, in the car, late at night. Eddie came to pick me up. He thought I had just had a bad trip, but when I told him I wasn’t high, that I don’t even do drugs, he said all drugs are the same whether there’s a prescription or not. Mom didn’t like that when I told her, but instead of telling Eddie to shut the hell up, she told me he had a point, and that maybe the medication wasn’t working. When I told her that I was just anxious, she asked why, and when I couldn’t explain exactly why because I really didn’t know myself, she pursed her lips and told me to go to bed and that we would “deal with it in the morning.” I wanted to tell her that I just wanted to talk, but I didn’t really know how to say that, so I went to bed and lay awake thinking about how I had called Dad from the bathroom of the house where the party was, how he didn’t answer, how I had called Mom, who called Eddie, because me and Eddie should spend more time together, and how I had waited on the toilet in the dark for him to come get me, my heart pounding and hoping no one had seen my sweaty face or the way I had run from the room when I felt myself losing control.
The ice cream stand is located next to the spiritual center of the park, where they offer both religious and spiritual options to use in place of, or in addition to, traditional treatments. An old man stands at the door wearing a t-shirt that says, “Ask Me About My Faith!” A woman next to him smiles beside a sign that offers lessons in meditation, mindfulness, and Yoga. My brother turns abruptly to me and asks whether or not I pray anymore. I tell him that I do sometimes, but as if he hasn’t even heard me he says that if I don’t it might explain why I’m so messed up all the time. I can’t tell if he’s joking or mocking me, but the old man turns towards us, looking expectant. I ignore them both and instead ask the woman at the head of the stand for two cones, one a chocolate dipped vanilla and the other strawberries and cream. She’s wearing a t-shirt that says, “Here to Talk” and her nametag says Sylvia. I pay for the ice creams with my own money and my brother takes his without a word.
We sit down and I tie my balloon to the back of the chair. I glance at the pamphlet. Suicide has never been my issue. Anxiety, depression, and poor sleep, sure, but not suicide. I know the pamphlet will probably say something about how anxiety and depression can lead to “something worse,” but I don’t need to read that, so I do myself this favor. I see Sylvia’s eyes follow the pamphlet as I toss it into the trash and then swivel back to me with a worried look. I say nothing and turn back around. I check my phone where there are no messages and tell my brother we have an hour before we have to meet Mom. I ask him what he wants to do and he shrugs and I tell him we can do anything he wants and he shrugs again. I ask him to please just pick something, and he asks me why, and I tell him this place is overwhelming, and he looks at me like he’s been slapped. Most of his ice cream is already gone save for the pink liquid melting out of the bottom of his sugar cone and I ask him what’s wrong and he says that I’m ungrateful and I ask him how and he says because everyone’s worried about me and it doesn’t make any difference because I never get any better. I look at him, speechless for a moment because I have nothing to say to that except that I’m sorry. He asks me what that’s supposed to mean and I tell him nothing more than what I said, that I really am sorry. He glares at me, but his face softens just a bit, and I wonder if I’m one of those people who looks like they’re really, really trying.
Listen I say and I lean towards him as he looks at me, let’s go to the mountain. He asks what I’m talking about and I point to the black mountain peak that can be seen just above the roofs of the shops that line the street. He frowns and asks me why and I say that I want to try it out and he looks quizzical for a moment. I tell him about the website and about how humor is supposed to lead to healing and how the mountain will be a really good laugh for both of us and then after a big pause in which he looks at me and I look at him I tell him I’m trying. He stares for a moment more but gets to his feet. Sylvia tells us to have a good day as we toss out our ice creams and I give her a really good smile, the best one I have, and wish her the same.
Everyone in line is smiling and I feel put off. Maybe they read the website too so they know this ride is like a joke, something to make depressed people laugh at themselves. My brother is quiet but he looks less angry and after a moment’s consideration I put my arm around him. He doesn’t push me off and I take it as a good sign before I start thinking about Mom and Eddie again. Surely, they’ve been on and off the Natural High by now, but Mom didn’t say what else they were going to do. There are plenty of rides throughout the park to choose from, not to mention petting zoos and touch tanks to help anxious guests soothe themselves with tactile therapy. Mom really likes animals, so maybe she’s at one of those. Eddie will go anywhere so long as he can walk behind her or hold her close—he says this like it’s romantic but it makes my skin crawl. Once when I made a face, he rounded on me and said that Mom deserved to be touched and treasured, and it was a damn shame my dad didn’t give her what she needed. I felt sick and I wanted to cry, and Mom could tell, but she didn’t tell Eddie to stop—instead she threw her arms around him so that her shirt lifted a few inches and kissed him. I think she did it so that I could get away, but maybe she agreed with Eddie, too. Maybe my dad really didn’t do enough.
My brother looks up at me and I realize the man at the front of the line just asked me a question. He smiles, wearing a shirt that says, “Humor is Healing” and asks if it’s just us two. I tell him yes and he permits us to enter the black building beyond him. It’s cool and dark and deserted inside. No other guests can be seen and the only thing in front of us is a small buggy big enough to seat four. We clamber inside and a safety bar lowers itself over our laps. I give my brother the thumbs up and he returns it, smiling for the first time all day. The buggy starts to move and a voice over tells us to close our eyes as we enter through a pair of black double doors into another chamber. It tells us to think about everything that scares us, everything that we’ve ever feared or will fear, and it runs on this tangent for a while, reminding us to keep our eyes closed. After a few minutes, I start to feel bad, like really, really bad. The buggy has climbed a bit through the darkness and the voice over is talking in an increasingly sarcastic voice about disillusionment and how fear and hopelessness don’t matter anyway because we’re all going to die, so what choice do we have but to be happy—just be happy. Beside me I hear a strange noise—a gasping, sucking noise punctuated by whimpers. What’s wrong I whisper through the darkness and my brother leans against me shaking his head and I ask what’s wrong, what’s wrong, and he says everything, everything, and I say what, and he takes a shuddering breath, and he tells me in the smallest voice I’ve ever heard that he doesn’t pray anymore either and that everything is wrong, and I tell him it’s okay, that everything is really okay, that everything will be okay, and he says it’s not, that it won’t be, that it can’t be, and I have nothing to say to that—I really don’t. The buggy passes through more doors and the voice over tells us to open our eyes. We’re in a house of mirrors where there are signs that say “Learn to Laugh at yourself!” and I want to cry and my brother is crying and think of Eddie and of Mom and of Dad and of everything in a weird loop that sends my heart pounding as our distorted reflections follow us through the maze.
The sun has set and the sky is dark blue Mom asks if I had fun. Eddie is at the wheel calling another driver a jackass and my brother is in the backseat fast asleep. He told me not to tell, so I didn’t tell. I won’t tell. Mom is looking at me expectantly, her face flushed. She asks how I liked the park. Wasn’t it great, she says. I think they’re really onto something she says, onto something good for people like me. I see Eddie glance at me in the rearview as he makes to change lanes. Mom is starting to look a little impatient because I haven’t answered. I wonder if my face looks like I’m really, really trying, and I give her a good smile, the best one I’ve got, really trying to try.
Kathryn H. Ross is an L.A. based writer whose works have recently appeared in Split Lip Mag, The Gravity of the Thing, and Aether and Ichor. When she is not writing, she is likely enjoying a good book while soaking in the tub. Keep up with her at speakthewritelanguage.com