Two Faces, a short story by Chris Corbett at
Cottonbro Studio

Two Faces

Two Faces

written by: Chris Corbett


It’s a strange thing, being insane. Well, I guess I’m not really insane, but I’m damn close. A lot of days I feel like I’m just holding onto my mind by a terribly frayed thread. Funny thing is, on the other days I actually feel ok, but on the bad days I’m so sure I’ll never get better that I feel like I need to check myself into an asylum, or at the very least go to the hospital or something.

It was on a bad day that I decided to sign up for one of those mental health retreats. My doctor recommended it, but I got the feeling they were just trying to get rid of me. By the time it came around, I wasn’t feeling so bad, but I figured I’d still go. The place was close to where I lived thankfully. It had to be, I was terrible at travelling too far. I always get so anxious thinking about how far I am from my house, and for some reason even thinking that sends me into a spiral of feeling more and more anxious. Well, that’s what it feels like will happen anyway. It’s a real nuisance if I’m being honest with you.

I really didn’t know what to expect from somewhere like this. I pulled into the carpark and everything was very forced zen. Lots of small trees and water everywhere, as if that was going to stop my broken brain from going haywire. Someone really needed to let the doctors know that we didn’t need medication, just some plants, hydrogen, and a pinch of oxygen.

Just before I parked, I saw something that made me do a double-take. There were a couple of people wearing those orange robes that monks usually wear and they had their bare feet out on the concrete of the carpark. I damn near turned my car round and drove home when I saw them. Who the hell were these weirdos?! If I was crazy then they had to be downright mad!

It took everything in me to actually park my car. This was all too much. I might have felt half insane, but I didn’t want to hum and haa at some big, smiley fat man, I wasn’t that far gone yet. I took a minute to calm myself before I finally got out of the car and grabbed my small bag on the back seat. The one good thing about seeing those two was that all thoughts of anxiety were gone, replaced by shock and bewildered amusement – silver linings I suppose.

As I made my way over to the building, the two in robes looked over at me and didn’t look away. I tried to avoid their gaze, but I could see them both staring me down. I looked to my left and right, hoping there was some other soul I could sacrifice to them, but I was alone. I pretended to check my bag for something, if only to give me a few more moments of bliss before I had to talk to them. My heart was beating fast and I could feel fear and madness congealing around my lungs and brain. I’d just have to bite the bullet.

As it turned out, they were both lovely. As I walked into the lobby, I really didn’t know what I’d been so worried about. They were completely normal. All smiles and helpfulness. Their good mood was infectious and I felt myself smiling as I came to the check-in desk.

My good mood lingered for a few moments as I waited for someone to come to the desk, but it stayed empty. I waited. And waited. After about five minutes I began to wonder what was going on. There wasn’t a soul in the place. No staff, no customers, just me. I noticed there was a bell on the counter with a small sign that said ‘Ring for disco’. I wasn’t sure what that meant, and if it was a joke I didn’t get it, but I figured it probably meant to ring if you needed a member of staff. I’d already waited for over five minutes, and I knew I ought to ring the bell, but I felt fear rising from my stomach again. I hated to be a nuisance. I imagined some poor overworked soul having to rush out to help me, all flustered and sweaty, and I just couldn’t bring myself to ring it.

I decided it would be best if I just kept waiting. Surely someone would have to come into the lobby soon. I kept almost pushing the bell, but every time I was about to I just imagined some awful scenario. Perhaps someone was out the back getting something from a high shelf, and the bell would scare them so much they fell and died. Maybe the bell was just there as a joke, and all the staff judged and hated anyone who actually rang it. Maybe it was a fake bell, and someone had electrified it, and I’d be the one person in a million who died of a heart attack from such a low voltage.

It was all too much, and I couldn’t stop overthinking, so before I could even think about why I shouldn’t, I stretched my hand forward and quickly jabbed at the bell. Sadly, I missed, and just managed to push it off the counter rather than ringing it, and it made an unholy racket when it slammed off the polished, wooden floor. This scenario wasn’t one I’d foreseen, but it was still unbearably embarrassing all the same. What if they thought I’d pushed it off on purpose and kicked me out? I almost turned and left to be honest, but before I could, a smiling man came out from the door off to the right.

When I got to my room I was smiling again, but still embarrassed. The man had been very nice when I told him what had happened. He just smiled, apologised and said he hoped I hadn’t been waiting long. All the staff were out the back seeing their friend who used to work there who’d just had a baby and time had gotten away from them. I apologised for interrupting and told him I was just looking for the key to my room. Once I’d given my name, he let me go, still smiling, but I wasn’t sure if he didn’t secretly resent me for pulling him away from his friends.

I spent the next hour or so in my room. I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to be doing. When I’d signed up, they’d said that orientation would be at 11 o’clock and that someone would come up to my room to lead me down. Problem was, it was 11.15 now and nobody had come. The hotel I was staying at, called Serenity Overlook, had been founded to hold mental health retreats like the one I was on, but it was also a normal hotel, and the areas where the classes and activities took place were locked off to everyone until one of the staff members let you in. This was to prevent people who hadn’t paid from making use of the additional facilities, but it also meant that someone like me, who seemed to have been forgotten, might have no way of accessing the forbidden zone where I was supposed to be made sane again.

As time went on, I just felt more and more anxious and awkward. It had reached 11:30 now and I still hadn’t done anything. With each passing minute I knew I should go out and find someone, but the more time passed, the worse I felt. If I rocked out now at half-eleven, they’d be wondering what the hell I’d been doing for half an hour. But if I didn’t get it over with, then it was just going to get worse! I sighed as I looked at the clock. It was 11:31 now, and I could feel that little nervous tickle growing more and more intense in my diaphragm. That tickle always heralded me having to do something I really didn’t want to, and the more I waited, the worse the tickle got until, eventually, I was looking at a full-blown panic attack.

I stood up from my chair and walked towards the door, feeling the tickle calm a little as it always did when I finally took action. There’s nothing worse than waiting, I’ll tell you that for nothing. I kept my movements deliberately slow, trying to trick my body into thinking it was about to leave the room, but allowing my mind to hold back from having to deal with an awkward social situation. Sadly, my body isn’t that stupid, and the moment I began truly moving in slow motion, the tickle in my diaphragm came back with a vengeance.

“God damn it…” I muttered under my breath, despite having no idea if I even believed in any gods.

I forced my hand out towards the door handle and turned.

It was roughly an hour later and I was sitting waiting for a yoga class to begin. Once I’d found a member of staff and they’d realised I’d been forgotten they were absolutely mortified. At first, I was sure their mortification was at me, the weirdo who’d waited forty minutes to tell them I’d been overlooked, but as it turned out, they were really mortified at themselves. Apparently, there was another person with the exact same name as me on the course, so they’d gotten confused and assumed the double name was a misprint.

“What are the odds!?” I’d said in a rather high voice, hoping they didn’t notice my sweating brow and shaking hands. I then let out a fake laugh that was so shrill I nearly made myself jump. The member of staff just laughed right along with me. The poor sap didn’t even realise they were dealing with a madman.

I have to be honest, I wasn’t ecstatic about doing yoga. It felt like all my fears were being realised, and I had been sent to some kind of hippie retreat. Serenity Overlook. I should have realised it was going to be a bunch of pretentious people who didn’t have any idea how I felt and just wanted my money. All I’d get in return was the chance to stare at some anxious bums in ill-fitting shorts, and how the hell was that supposed to help me?! I hadn’t even packed exercise gear (in fact, I’m not sure I even own any) so I was waiting in jeans and a t-shirt, looking like a damn fool.

The others were all chatting with each other in hushed whispers, as if we were in a temple or something. I just sat there silently, looking around at all the excited faces. Were these people even anxious? Or were they just here for the free tea and scones? Not one among them looked how I felt, and I started to get angry. This was all just a sham. A bunch of fools who maybe got a little nervous once in a while and decided they’d go on some pretentious course so the world could see how different and troubled they were. Poor little victims.

It was just as I was starting to stew in my own self-righteous juices that the woman to my left leaned over and whispered at me.

“So, did you not expect there to be any exercise, or do you just like wearing jeans a lot?”

At first, I didn’t realise she was talking to me. I was so lost in my little world of worry that I couldn’t fathom anything happening outside my own head. After a few moments, my brain caught up with her words and recognised the word jeans. But I was the only one wearing jeans, so she had to be talking to me! I turned towards her and saw her looking right into my eyes. She was beautiful. Worryingly so.

“I’m sorry…?” I managed to say despite all the breath having left my body and my hands sweating more than ever.

“No, I’m sorry…” she said, smiling a perfect smile. “I wasn’t trying to make fun, I just know how you feel. When I was packing for this, I brought these old leggings and tank top because I was so worried there might be something like this, but I never honestly expected it.”

I knew she was speaking, and somewhere in my brain I was registering her words, but all I was thinking about was the fear growing in my stomach and chest. I hadn’t expected anyone to want to talk to me, so I wasn’t prepared for this. I began to worry about taking a panic attack and having to run off, leaving her wondering what she did wrong and me embarrassed onto the point of death. I took a few deep breaths, hoping she wouldn’t notice how petrified I’d become.

“Oh, haha…” I said, sure my voice was several octaves higher than usual. “Yeah, looks like I got caught out. If you have scissors I could turn them into jean shorts, but I’m not sure I could pull off that look.”

The woman to my left laughed, but I knew it had to be out of pity. I was still so focused on controlling my breathing that I wasn’t really sure what I’d even said to her. Just as she was about to say something else, the instructor came out from the huge double doors at the end of the corridor and people started filing in. The instructor was wearing one of those awful robes and had that look of zen-like superiority.

“Have fun!” the woman whispered as she turned and walked towards the now open hall with everyone else.

The class itself wasn’t great at first, I won’t lie to you. Even the simplest positions were hard while wearing jeans, and I wasn’t very flexible to begin with. The teacher assured us that this was a class for beginners, just to allow us to start the day with calm exercise, but by the end of it I was sweating. I wasn’t sure if it was the light exercise that was ruining me, or if it was me still fighting off the anxiety in my chest, but either way, I was sure I looked a mess.

After the class there was tea, coffee and traybakes served. I was still feeling fairly anxious, so I didn’t have much of an appetite. Instead, I just had a decaf tea and sat in the corner, away from the others, trying my best to appear calm and collected.

“So, did you enjoy doing a warrior pose in those tight jeans then?”

I felt like I nearly jumped out of my skin. The woman was sitting beside me again. I’d been so focused on my own body that I hadn’t a clue what was happening around me. I looked up from my tea and tried to smile at her.

“It was a bit of a struggle, but I think I held my own…” I admitted, letting out something that might have passed as a laugh. She laughed along with me, and I felt the knot in my chest loosen a little.

After the yoga we went out for a walk through the grounds. The whole group went along, led by a few members of staff, but we all fell into our own little cliques as we wound our way through the zen gardens and on into the forest nearby. I was still anxious, but I actually found myself calming a little as we wandered aimlessly. Despite the fact that we had to be more than thirty minutes from the hotel now, and usually the thought of being so far from where I was staying would worry me, I was managing to keep my cool and only felt a few pangs of panic.

I spent a lot of my time speaking to the same woman who’d joked about my jeans. Her name was Janet, and I really felt like she couldn’t be any more different than I was (except for our names, since I’m called John, we thought it was funny how close they were, especially since her accent makes her pronounce my name “Jan”). She was so confident. And I don’t just mean she was normal; she wasn’t fazed by anything! She made jokes, she was always laughing or smiling, and there didn’t seem to be any hint of her needing to be attending this course. I was right on the other end of that scale. I was always worried about making jokes in case nobody laughed, I often had to remind myself to laugh or smile as I was focusing on my on anxious thoughts and I just generally felt like a complete basket case. It felt like we were opposites of one another, but we still got on like a house on fire, so spending time with her definitely put me more at ease.

At lunchtime Janet and I sat together, away from the others, and we continued to talk about anything and everything. At one point I laughed at something she said, and I realised I wasn’t having to pretend – I hadn’t even thought about my anxiety for the last hour or so. Usually in a situation like this, if I remembered my anxiety after not feeling it for a period of time, I’d immediately start to feel anxious again, but this time, laughing at Janet’s silly joke, I merely noted its absence and continued our conversation. It was a strange feeling. Was this how normal people felt all the time? If so, I could definitely get used to it!

The next activity involved separating us all into different therapy sessions. I was sorry to be away from Janet, but I was still feeling pretty good. I don’t go out too much, and I don’t usually have many interactions with people, so having some genuine conversation seemed to have brought me out of my head and back into the world. It felt like I was living again. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but for the last few months, I’d really felt like I was just existing. Like there wasn’t much point to anything. Now, I wasn’t sure I cared if there was a point to anything, and honestly, that was enough for me.

The actual therapy was pretty standard. I’d been to sessions before, and as this therapist didn’t know me, they had to do an initial assessment before actually trying to treat me in any way. They asked a bunch of questions about my past, if there was any trauma during my childhood, and plenty more. I was in speaking to them for over an hour, and when I came out, I was feeling a little anxious again, but also like I might understand myself a little better.

Before I knew it, it was time for dinner, and we were all released to do whatever we wanted. Serenity Overlook was a little way out of town, so I didn’t really fancy going anywhere other than the hotel restaurant. When I arrived, I recognised a few faces and gave them nods and smiles, but I didn’t see Janet anywhere. I sat at one of the booths that could seat two, assuming I’d be eating on my own, and ordered myself a coke, which surprised me, as I usually avoided caffeine like the plague, as anything that increased my heart rate was likely to make me anxious, yet here I was, ordering a caffeinated beverage like a regular Lancelot or Beowulf.

I nearly jumped out of my seat when I saw Janet come in. She was looking about the restaurant, as if she was trying to find someone. I wondered who was lucky enough to have her seeking them out like this, but when her eyes met mine, she smiled and rushed over. It turned out it was me. We sat together for a few minutes exchanging pleasantries and each made our food orders. I have to admit, my attraction to Janet was perhaps more than friendship, which I’m sure you’ve guessed, but I never imagined she’d reciprocate my interest, so I did my best to play it cool (although, as a crazy, anxious person, my version of playing it cool still involved a lot of sweating and twitching).

We’d just finished our main courses when I noticed Janet giving me an odd look. I looked back at her and smiled.

“What?” I asked, giving out a little chuckle after I said it.

Janet continued to stare at me before she spoke.

“Why are you here?” she asked, smiling herself now, but still looking genuinely curious.

“I was hungry,” I said, eliciting a laugh from her.

“No! You know what I mean… why are you here? At Serenity Overlook…”

She said Serenity Overlook in a mocking way, the way we’d both been doing for much of the day. I laughed again, but still wasn’t sure what she was asking.

“Well… probably the same reason you are…” I said, still keeping things light. I didn’t want to go into detail about just how mad I was.

“But…” she began, choosing her words carefully. “You aren’t like the rest of us… you don’t need to be here…”

I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. If anything, I felt like she was the one out of place. She was confident, beautiful and funny, and there didn’t seem to be a hint of anything wrong with her. Janet continued talking, perhaps because she saw just how confused I looked.

“How do you just take it all in your stride? You seem so calm and confident. I’m so muddled all the time, and even the slightest hitch sets me off.”

I nearly laughed in her face. I was sure she was making fun of me at first, but as I continued to look at her, I could see she was genuine. Me?! Calm?! She had to be on drugs, or at least drunk.

“I… well, I don’t think I am, am I?” I asked, not sure how to react. “If anything, I thought you were the one who wasn’t anxious! You spoke to me first! You’re the confident one, I’m a wreck!”

We were both laughing now, neither of us able to believe the other. As it turned out, Janet saw me the exact way I saw her. I came across as totally confident, calm and collected at all times, and that’s why she was naturally drawn to me, just as I was drawn to her. It seemed we each had two faces without even knowing it, one inwardly crying and the other outwardly laughing. It did make me wonder, if I thought Janet was normal, how many others had I misjudged?

The rest of the weekend was great. By the end of it, I felt I knew more about myself and my condition than I ever had before, and so much of that had just come from talking to Janet. I won’t lie and tell you I was never bothered by my condition again, that would be absurd. But that weekend marked a turning point on how I treated myself. I was kinder, more patient, and more willing to accept myself, crazy or not.

I even plucked up the confidence to tell Janet how I felt about her several weeks later, and she laughed at me, telling me it was about time, as she’d been shamelessly flirting since the moment I’d met her. I honestly didn’t have a clue, but it just goes to show, life isn’t always what it appears.

No matter how dark or alien the world might appear, there are always two faces.

Latest posts by Chris Corbett (see all)