Jenny and I had been friends for a very long time. We first met each other in elementary school, and we knew each other’s parents very well. We later even ended up going to the same university. Her major was different from mine, but that didn’t stop us from being roommates for four years. We were best friends.
One day, during our final year in college, Jenny told me that she was seeing something strange. There is this woman, said Jenny. She’s really far away, but Jenny could still see her somehow. The woman wears a white robe, and she doesn’t do anything. She just stands there simply looking right at Jenny.
At first, I paid very little attention to it. As days went by, however, Jenny started mentioning about this woman more frequently. She would point to the complete void, and ask me whether or not I could see her. Jenny said that the woman seemed to be getting closer and closer every day. All of this sounded so silly to me that I burst into laughter. I guess Jenny knew how ridiculous it sounded as well, and laughed along.
Toward the end of the semester, however, Jenny became increasingly restless. Except when going to her classes, she rarely left our room. She became very reserved and irritable. We often got into arguments because she blamed me for not taking her seriously. She said that the woman’s clothes are getting darker and darker as she’s getting closer. She was now close enough so that Jenny could clearly see the woman’s face. Her eyes are wide open and bulging, but she never blinks. Her face is dead pale with a hue of grey, and she’s always smiling. Her lips are stretched out into a disturbingly unnatural grin as if she’s being forced to smile against her will. What could have I said in response to this? I didn’t think Jenny was lying or playing around, but at the same time the woman wasn’t visible to my eyes.
After graduation, I went on to grad school while Jenny decided to take a year off due to her symptoms. She stayed home with her parents, and never left her room so I had to visit her just so I could say hi to her. According to Jenny’s mom, Jenny apparently called the police a few days prior saying that a strange woman is standing outside her house. When the police arrived, they didn’t see any woman, and Jenny was almost arrested for filing a false police report. I told her mom what’s been happening with Jenny over the past several months.
Concerned about her psychological health, Jenny’s parents decided to take her to the hospital for an evaluation. After several lab tests and imaging studies, Jenny was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She was to be referred to a psychiatrist. The doctor showed Jenny’s parents the MRI images and PET scan results, and told them that her symptoms were quite severe. He strongly recommended hospitalization for close monitoring.
After four months of aggressive treatment, Jenny seemed to have gotten so much better. When I visited her on her last day at the hospital, she giggled and joked around like she always used to. She no longer complained about the strange woman anymore, and it seemed like she was back to her normal self.
A day after Jenny was discharged home, however, I received a call from her.
“She’s back,” said Jenny in a trembling voice that was about to burst into tears.
When I arrived at Jenny’s that evening, she was crawled into a fetal position in her bed wrapped up in her blanket. Jenny’s parents were planning on taking her back to the hospital the first thing in the morning.
This time, it was much worse. Jenny told me that the woman was now in the same room standing right next to her. The woman was so close to Jenny that if she were to extend her arm, she would be able to touch her. Jenny said that the woman’s clothes were now very black, and this time she was frowning as if she was extremely upset about something. I looked around the room, and as usual, there was nothing there.
“I’m scared,” Jenny clung to my arm sobbing uncontrollably. “I’m so scared. Help me. Please help me.” I stood there completely bewildered not knowing what to do or what to say. That was my last memory of her. A couple of days after the incident, I received a call from Jenny’s mom. Jenny had passed away. The cause was cardiac arrest.
At Jenny’s funeral, several questions crossed my mind. Was the woman who killed Jenny real? If we suggest solely based on Jenny’s claim that the woman was indeed real, then a multitude of other questions becomes relevant. Who was she? Why was she haunting Jenny in particular? What did she want? Did Jenny truly have schizophrenia or was it a misdiagnosis of a paranormal phenomenon? If I had helped her get treatments earlier, would that have done anything to save her? Maybe or maybe not. Or perhaps the woman wasn’t real.
We could play the devil’s advocate, and state that the woman was a mere hallucination accompanying Jenny’s alleged schizophrenia. But that would nonetheless lead to an inconclusive dead end. What does the word real mean, and who defines it? I could flirt with the assumption that whatever the entity that Jenny was seeing was all in her head, and that it was nothing more than a product of her imagination. But that doesn’t mean that it was any less real. When Jenny was diagnosed with schizophrenia, the PET scan images showed hyperactivities in several different parts of her brain; that alone constitutes a physical proof that the world Jenny was seeing and experiencing was in fact very real to her. I still vividly recall the pure fear in her eyes. The woman was neither visible to me nor did I ever feel her presence. However, our perception of reality can vastly differ from one person to another. What is “not real” to someone may very well be perceived as real for someone else, and therefore it would be foolish on my part to accuse Jenny – purely based on my own sensory perception – that she’s wrong. Despite our tendency to establish a general consensus of what is real versus not real according to the majority’s observation, what pertains to our senses alone – that is, something that’s visible, tangible, audible, and related to physical aspects in general – does not accurately depict the entirety of what we commonly refer to as reality.
The truth is that we live in a world in which everyone creates his or her own reality within it. The concept of reality shouldn’t be regarded as one single true entity that is applicable for all, but rather as a myriad collection of independent subjective units. These boundaries of individualized reality are very difficult to be encroached upon by someone other than the self, and as such, it makes the escape from it just as difficult. Perhaps this is what ultimately fills our world with so much uncertainty and fear.