One, two, three, breathe. They aren’t staring at you. One, two, three, breathe. It’s okay. One, two, three, BREATHE. They aren’t doing anything wrong. My heart punches and battles as I walk through the bleak hallways of my high school. I pass by the girls that I’ve known my whole life. Preschool to now; my senior year. It’s absolutely insane how much one person can change between then and now. Gaggles of glaring girls hang out in little groups all over the school, and they giggle and gossip. It makes me want to throw up. They sit there in their small huddles and stare me up and down like vultures eyeing up their prey before it dies.
Everyone says high school is terrible. They say, “I wouldn’t go back if you paid me a million dollars.” My mom says it all the time, but that doesn’t make it any better. It makes me laugh when adults think they can make something better just by saying they understand it. With anxiety, highschool is far worse. It’s like normal highschool on drugs; it feels like everyone is constantly staring at you, and you’re always hallucinating. I’ve been here for three years, and I’m on my fourth. I thought by now, I’d find a way to master my anxiety. To be able to defeat it, but I just keep fighting. I keep fighting this monster that takes over my mind.
High school isn’t always bad. I have friends. There’s Kennedy. Kennedy is the sweetest, kindest person you will ever meet, and she is always there to give me a hug. Still, she just doesn’t understand my anxiety. Her family is her support system, and it isn’t in her DNA. She has these deep dimples, a small round face with a quaint pointy chin, her face is airbrushed with faint freckles, her head has a thousand light brown wavy curls tumbling down stopping at her shoulders, and brown eyes with green rays splashed into them. Her eyebrows are thick, but always perfectly trimmed and her lips are like a pink blossom. She’s perfect. I know you aren’t supposed to get jealous of your friends, but it’s impossible not to. To not compare me to her, to pretend like she’s not the prettier friend. That’s all people ever care about. Looks. They care about what you look like and not what you can do as an individual.
I don’t care what people think about me. I don’t. Or at least I try as hard as I can not to. It’s difficult. Right now, in today’s age, I can’t do anything without comparing myself to someone. Social media is my biggest enemy, but I can’t not use it. I would feel incredibly disconnected from everyone. Not like I care about that, but without it, I wouldn’t know what is going on in the world. Who’s going to what party? “Why does that matter?” I don’t know honestly. It just makes me feel better; if I know who’s at a party and who’s not. Of course, I’m not. I don’t remember why I care. I shouldn’t. I don’t like those people anyway, and I probably wouldn’t go. My social anxiety wouldn’t even let me leave the house. It just hurts sometimes. It bothers me even more that I care about stupid stuff like that.
I was on my way to class. I was planning on walking straight to class because I was already late as it was, but I couldn’t breathe, and I needed to take a break. I took a detour and went to the bathroom. It’s not my favorite place. It’s actually quite horrible, but I needed to find someplace that I can take a deep breath. I opened the door and listened for gossiping girls, the coast was clear. I walked in and looked at myself in the mirror. I saw my blue eyes and nose from my father staring back at me, along with his brown hair, flowing down my shoulders. Suddenly I began to cry. I didn’t want to cry, but I just couldn’t stop it. The walls suddenly started to cave in on me, and I couldn’t breathe at all. What were light tears turned into sobs, and I couldn’t stop myself. I fell down to the floor, embarrassed and ashamed, finally catching my breath. Why does this keep happening? Why am I poisoned with this terrible feeling all the time? Is there something that other people are doing that I’m not? I just want all of this to stop. Suddenly my surroundings came back around me. I remembered where I was and how gross the floor was. Before I could take a deep breath, I heard footsteps outside the door, so I hastily pulled my limp body off the ground and walked over to the sink.
Two girls walk in and glare at me like I shouldn’t be in there. One walks to a stall, and the other checks herself out in the mirror. Warm water rushes over my hands as I am quickly brought back to the harsh reality of being a high school girl. My hands continue to shake, but I want to escape these girls, and I’m so late for class. I feel like I’ve been thrown back into a shark pit where all I can do is swim as hard as I can to escape the sharp teeth that want to dig into my flesh. These girls have never directly been mean to me. I just know that they think they are better than me. I can see their judgment in their eyes. Maybe they are better than me… maybe…
I step back into the hallway, and it’s terrible lighting. I walk straight to class. I apologize to my teacher after class, and she asks why I was late with deep concern in her heart. I want to tell her everything. I want to say, “I just had a panic attack, and the walls started closing in on me. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I can’t stop thinking about the people that just walk out on me. I just don’t want to fight anymore.” But the words don’t reach my lips, they just sit in my chest and burn. Kids from her next class start filing through the door. She continues to wait for my answer, so I say, “I had a headache.” She says okay, and we brush it off together. I always use headaches as an excuse for my anxiety. People never question it. As truth bubbles up in my chest, my hands start shaking. I leave her room before she can ask more questions.
I see Zev in the hallway; he sees my stress. He’s another part of what makes high school somewhat bearable. He’s a foot taller than me with these crazy blueish greenish beautiful eyes, but the rest of his features are dark. He has this curly brown hair that he’s always hated having to manage. His eyebrows are big and bushy and the opposite of tame. He has broad shoulders and big hands that make me feel protected every time he holds me. His skin is perfectly olive and tanned always, even in the dead of winter. And his smile. It could make the whole world stop. It’s traced with dimples, and it isn’t much different from anyone else’s, but it just feels so authentic and purely joyful, when he smiles, it sometimes feels like I can reach that happiness. It makes his face pop with his dark features and those white teeth. He cares about fashion and isn’t afraid to be himself. Zev always looks like he’s trying to impress someone in a nonchalant way. Kennedy says that he’s “alternative” and that makes me laugh.
As he walks over to me, he’s wearing jeans, a grey t-shirt, and a long long cardigan over it with white crisp sneakers. I realize that he’s standing right in front of me and he asks me if I’m okay even though he knows I hate that question, and he knows that I’m not, but here he is, asking that stupid question yet again. I shake my head, and he grabs my hand. He doesn’t do this romantically, he knows he will find his answer in what my hand is doing. At this moment, it is shaking rapidly. He knows that I’m incredibly anxious. I snap my hand away and look around, making sure no one sees me. “Can we just drop it? I don’t want to do this right now.” I ask. I look in his eyes, and my heart melts. He cares so much. He says, “whatever” and walks away just like that, angry that I won’t open up to him. Zev isn’t my boyfriend, and I would never expect him to be. We’ve been friends since elementary school, but there will always be a place in my heart for him.
My attention shifted back to what was going on around me. I was left with a slap in my face as he walked away, but I understood why he was upset. All he has ever done is care about me, but here I am. Unable to tell him how he can help me. I looked at all the people around me. I decided that standing in the middle of the hallway alone was bringing a lot of attention to me, so I briskly walked to my next class with my head low.
After that class it’s lunchtime. I sit with Kennedy and Zev. Kennedy talks to me and starts a conversation about her newest favorite shoes and how the girls in her math class were being stupid. All I can muster is a chuckle. Zev glares at me with disappointment and worry combined into one glare. I mouth “I’m sorry.” To him and he just stares at me with sweet eyes unwilling to accept my apology. I add to Kennedy’s conversation and begin to gossip, “Yesterday Jennifer was acting like an idiot. Right in front of like three teachers, she started talking about all the drugs she was doing and the guys she was hooking up with. It was pathetic.” My mind wrapped around what I just said.
Kennedy added to my gossip, “They are all virtually just the same person. They try to be one another because it’s what allows them to feel safe. It gives them protection.” I let that sink into my mind and I go about the rest of the day like a zombie with those words repeating over and over.
Time flies by, and suddenly, it’s the end of the day, and the bell rings. Walking to my car is easy. Everyone is in such a rush to leave the school that they never pay any attention to what I’m doing. I walk out of my classroom, then the terrible hallways, and out of the school to my car, where I can just be me. Alone. But suddenly the thoughts come flooding in: I fight so hard for happiness. I fight and I fight for it. I fight to defeat my anxiety, I fight for good grades, I fight to be creative in some way, I fight for a place in this world that is mine, I fight to be seen and I fight to be lost and forgotten. I fight against those girls in my head constantly, but I’m just always fighting the thoughts in my brain. I try to help myself in ways, but that just furthers this ongoing fight. Meditation. Nothing. Yoga. Nothing. My mom tries me with suggestions. But. Nothing. Works. This battle in my head won’t give up. It exhausts me, draws me out until I’m just a walking corpse trying to maintain a sense of being. All I want is to glide through life. Have a smile on my face that is real. Not just a phony one. How do people do it? I want to swim in a pool of happiness, but my pool is empty and I just dived into it. Splat. I’ve hit the bottom and I hit it so hard. There’s no happiness to swim in and I’m stuck, so I have to fight my way out of this empty pool with no ladders or lifeguards. Then I stop the car, and I’m home.
When I go inside, my mom is standing in our beautiful kitchen. She’s listening to classical music as she cleans the kitchen in her serene “happy place”. I look around at the plants that cover our modern home and feel a sense of repulsion. Nothing about our home is cozy, it's set up like a magazine cover. It wants to catch your attention, politely screaming, “read me, I’m inviting!” then once you're inside you realize it's all fake. I grab ahold of one of the expensive plant’s leaves and rip it off. The plastic flutters to the floor and I roll my eyes. My mom stops cleaning and says hello in her normal cheerful way that just feels so fake. It’s a wonder to me how someone who is so centered and self-aware can give birth to the anxious, overthinking, mess that is me. I quickly say hi then head up our floating wood stairs suspended by metal wires to my room. To avoid my mom. She tried to stop me, but I didn’t want to have the silly conversation that we have every single day. “Hey honey, how was your day?”
I would respond with a lie and say, “It was perfect mom, how was your day?”
She would say, “It was good!” and go into every detail about the spin class she went to, or what the cashier at the grocery store told her about crystals, or explains how the feng shui of a room can “really boost your morale!”, or how mercury is in retrograde, so you have to be careful with your emotions right now. I just didn’t feel like dealing with that today.
Once I was in my room, I sank to the floor. Trying to keep it together, I start counting my breaths, but I break and crack and the thoughts in my head win over the counting. I sit in front of the door of my room and push all my weight against it. I scream silent screams as tears slide out of my eyes. My mind twists and turns with everything that is going on. I scratch my arms and my body and tell myself how stupid I am for doing this again. I’m scared. The feelings overcome me. I just wish I could separate my brain from my body. I wish I could take all these thoughts out and stab them with a knife and bury them in the woods. I wish I could scream. I wish I could tell those girls how they make me feel. Tell my teachers what’s wrong, talk to Zev, and tell him that I’m sorry I can’t be more open with him. Tell the world that I want to stand tall. I want to push through, I want to be stronger than I am.
I feel broken.
My mom knocks on my door. As though I’m a fish dragged out of the water, I’m pulled out of my panicky state. I lift my sleeve up to my face and rush to brush the tears off of me. I try to catch my breath, but I choke. I know my face is all red and puffy, but there’s nothing I can do about that. My mom says, “Is everything okay, honey?”
I cough a little, not being able to stop it and say, “Yeah, I’m fine.” She says okay, and she lingers there for a second. I feel her heartbeat on the door then hesitation, and she pulls away from it. Footsteps follow as she gets further and further away until I can hear them descend down the stairs. I pull my phone out of my pocket as I hear the mimicry voice in my head “What the hell is wrong with you? JUST TELL HER, SHE DESERVES TO KNOW.” I know… I can’t.
I scroll mindlessly through Instagram. 3:30 pm, Friday, no sign of any parties. “Why do you care? It’s not like they would invite you anyway. Also, it’s the afternoon. There wouldn’t be any parties anyway.” The demon in my mind scratches trying to get a reaction out of me. It tries to pull me into its claws, so I can play with it. It loves this game, and I’m the worst at telling it no. My fingers slide across my phone as smiling faces of people that I recognize and people I don’t fly by me. People I know, people I’ve seen in movies, magazines, all smiling. “Why can’t I be like that?” Every person is different, they are special in some way, they are all flawless in the way I want to be. Tears drip down my face like raindrops on a car window; I can never be enough. As I scroll down the page the faces start attacking me, ridiculing me, calling me “stupid” and “ugly” and “normal” and “ordinary” and “fake” like I’m not a real person. Like I don’t have feelings.
“This is so stupid, why are you doing this?” My mind pushes at me and pokes at me again.
I can’t avoid it, I don’t know what else to do. I try to be strong, but sometimes I can’t. I’ve been tied together with this fake smile, but at the end of the day, the string is pulled and I let it fall off. I feel like a truck on a back road trying to fly through it and enjoy all the views, but I keep getting stuck in all the potholes and these potholes suck. They slowly wreck the interior of the car and rust the surface. Sometimes, I hit the potholes purposefully so I can feel something. I know what it feels like to hit potholes better than what it feels like to drive on a perfect road. It sucks, it really does, but it’s all I know.
I look at my phone again; 4:30 pm. I try to resist the urge to check Snapchat, but I realize I can’t help it. The app is basically wired into my DNA and I can’t cut it out. My phone buzzes, a text from Kennedy asking if I want to hang out. I tell her I’m busy and she asks again saying, “Please…? We can go to the football party?” It seems like she got invited and doesn’t want to go alone. I ask her what time and she tells me 9.
“People don’t want you there.” my mind starts the game up again. “They think that you’re stupid. They only want Kennedy there and that's why you aren’t invited.”
“Stop!” I say out loud.
The creature in my mind chimes back, “You can’t. You like this. You love this. You don’t even know what you would be like without this. This is what gives you power.”
“You’re right.” the words roll off my tongue sadly and fall to the ground where they remain visible. I like that fighting feeling. It makes me feel important. It makes me feel better than other people. I’m not. I talk about those girls behind their backs, maybe because I’m jealous. I’m not any better than them. I chose to be ordinary because I don’t want to be seen. I want to make a difference in this world, but it feels like everyone is doing the same things. When I think, my thoughts attack me. It feels like I’m in control until I’m not. There’s this train that's in my mind and it moves so fast that I can’t get on. The train keeps zooming around and I can’t control my thoughts. Especially when I'm tired, and I’m sick of trying to run and catch up. I don’t have control over what I think and that’s the problem. I get caught up in everything else that I miss the train and I can’t get on. It’s stressful. So stressful. On top of schoolwork, friends, family life, and taking care of myself, I have to try to keep my thoughts in order and it’s exhausting.
Kennedy texts me, “Hello????” We both know that I don’t like parties and we both know that it's not my scene. I tell her no, and she gets the point. Then I start a text to Zev to apologize for not talking to him earlier. I draft the text 5 times before I realize that I can’t say what I want to say in a text. Instead, I ask him to come over and he says he’ll be over in 15 minutes. I go to the bathroom and splash water in my face then I walk down the contemporary stairs to the living room that's attached to our kitchen.
I call down, “Mom, Zev is coming over soon. That’s okay, right?”
She cheerfully replies, “Oh great! He can stay for dinner!” I didn’t expect her to say anything else. Sometimes it feels like she is an automated machine, only saying the things that will make me happy, avoiding her own feelings. I guess that's what happens when someone you love leaves you with no warning. You learn to hide your emotions, even from the ones you love.
Time passes by really slowly and I mess around with one of the pillows on the couch while I wait. This pillow has these pom poms on it that I pull apart when I’m anxious or bored. When I hear his car pull up my anxiety curls deep into my stomach, “What am I going to tell him?”
He comes to the door and greets my mother in the way he always does. He gives her a big hug and they have some silly conversation about how tall he is and how she remembers when she was taller than him. They laugh and I stand by the doorway with a fake smile on my face; pretending this is the first time I've heard this conversation. They talk for a few more minutes then my mom says, “I’m going to go start making dinner, I’ll call you two down when it’s finished!” This is our cue to leave.
When we get to my room Zev says, “So…? What’s up?”
I chuckle a little and say to the ground as I close my door, “I just wanted to talk to you, I guess.” I pause and look into his eyes for a reaction, “I just have a lot going on in my head.”
“Okay then, tell me what's going on in that crazy head?” he says and he sits comfortably on my bed.
I follow and sit upright with rigidity in my back. Then I exhale all my words out in one breath, “I just have a lot of anxiety and I’m stressed all the time and I feel like the whole world is watching me. I have this constant battle going on in my head 24/7 and there’s a voice that doesn’t even sound like me. She’s mean and cold and she always tells me what I’m doing wrong. I don’t want to be ordinary and I’m scared of standing out. I want to be me, but I don’t even know who that is. ” I pause and notice that I’m scratching my wrist and it’s all red. Marks of the demon trying to come out. Zev notices too and grabs my hand. I take a deep breath then say, “I’m just so sick of constantly fighting. I keep fighting to be happy, but nothing will make me happy. I want a break and every time that I think a break might be coming something bad happens.” A tear slides down my face, “there was a solid four weeks when everything felt okay. I felt like myself, and I was navigating my anxiety well, but last night, last night everything fell apart.”
He looked at me and searched me up and down, “Why?” He asked, “Why did everything fall apart?”
I bit my tongue then I whispered through my teeth with a twist of anger and sadness, “My dad…” a pause tore through the air, it seemed like we were both holding our breath, “he called me yesterday. He’s with his new wife and he is about to have a baby girl.” Zev knows that I only see my dad once a year, it’s been that way since he left when I was five. He lives in NewYork with his blond and beautiful wife, and I live here in Pennsylvania. It's a five-hour drive and I hate it, my mom started making me take Ubers as I got older, she can’t stand seeing his face, and I can’t either anymore.
“I just keep imagining him raising that little girl and it hurts so much. All I ever wanted was for him to be in my life. For him to pick me up from school, for him to take me to my first high school dance, for him to love me, but he never has. She is going to get everything from him that I never did, all I ever get are checks in the mail, and it’s just so painful. Zev, dads aren’t supposed to be the ones that make you feel awful about yourself. They aren’t supposed to cause panic attacks. They are supposed to be the one that protects you from those feelings. To hug you when you cry, not make you cry.” I feel my posture loosen and I sink into my bed. A wave of relief flows into my body.
He sits there for a second without saying anything. Tears slide down my face. I look around at the bright colors of my room. The living plants on the tables, the white fluffy blankets at the end of my bed. The late afternoon sun peaks in and touches the bright colors on my walls. The orange and yellow pillows flourish and I breathe in. I breathe the sun in, I breathe my room, and it feels like me, and I breathe Zev’s silence in. He knows that I don’t need answers. I just need someone I can talk to.
“It’s okay,” he tells me at last. “Everything is going to be okay.” He just looks at me and then hugs me. And I feel his words. I feel them seep into me. I feel the sun on my skin and the river of relief in my body push up into my eyes and slide down my face onto his warm shoulder. I inhale, then exhale. I can finally breathe again.