Here is the essay I wrote very late at night when I couldn’t sleep. It was unedited and impulsively submitted, yet somehow I won a silver medal in Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
I was diagnosed on November 28, 2016. In retrospect, there had been years leading up to it. Years of sweaty palms and overactive thoughts. School bathroom doors locked while I wiped my tears away with my red cable sweater. Moments where it felt like my heart was no longer a part of my body and was trying to find a way to rip out of my chest. Nights when my stomach felt like a graveyard where my childish butterflies came to die.
His office was tucked away in a law firm building downtown, the kind where obese white collars and unfaithful husbands spend their time pouring over paperwork and drinking cheap coffee. Massive honey wood doors with gold colored knobs broke apart the cream walls on the thirteenth floor. My mother and I sat in the waiting room, her filling out paperwork while I was pretending not to be nervous. In reality my insides were bathing in lighter fluid, waiting for the que of a fallen match to engulf me. We had arrived too early for the appointment which allowed ample time for me to overthink my looming doom. The men sitting across from us in old, black leather chairs were foreign. Their slurred tongues were unreadable from my distance, but the murmurs of their unknown language swam in the air between us. One of the men had an ear gauge, a two-headed snake peeking out of the back end which deeply contrasted the formality of his suit and tie.
The psychiatrist walked around the corner and introduced himself to me, grasping my shaking hand with reassuring strength. His grey hair was beginning to thin, but still maintained a fullness on the sides. Lanky in stature despite his age, I imagined he was that one kid in high school who was awkwardly tall and only played on the basketball team because of his height, not for his dexterity or skill. His gawky body composition matched his body, but as the years went on, he grew into himself a bit more.
His office was warm. The fluorescent lights were turned off, the only light was coming from a few tiny lamps behind him that cast an orange glow on the horrible painting that took up the majority of wall above his desk. This brought a sense of comfort to me, since I’ve always done things in the dark. My bedroom is only lit by Christmas lights that are up year round. I shower in the dark and make food in our dark kitchen. Low lights make me feel more comfortable with myself because I don’t feel like I’m in the public eye as much. When I step out of my controlled home, though, is when lights truly bother me. The ceiling lights at school make me feel like I’m a rat in some laboratory being examined in a large, white room. My peers are like scientists dressed in white coats, watching my every movement and recording data vigorously. It’s my least favorite place to be, mostly because of that reason alone.
Out the window to my left, I gazed at the heads of giant buildings a few floors beneath me and wondered what it would be like to be an inanimate object like a building. They stood so strong and unyielding to harsh weather conditions and people stomping around in them. Encounters within them were private and secrets only peeked out of their windows once in awhile. They were steady and sure of themselves. No breathing was involved, no feelings, no panic attacks, no tears, no nothing. For a moment, that seemed like bliss.
I sat down after instructed to do so and tried to hide my sweaty palms in between my crossed legs. The coffee table in front of me had mosaic tiles on it and formed an image of a flower with jagged, glass petals. It’s beauty was undeniable but it was sharp sharp and loving it meant a drop of blood would be spilt from time to time.
Next, the words that came out of his mouth were ones I’d heard before from countless adults in offices from under massive machines that scanned my head: “So tell me about your anxiety.” At this point, I’d rehearsed my speech so many times, it came out naturally. Mechanically, almost. I didn’t need a flashcard with bulleted points on it to go in a logical sequence about the gritty details anymore. I didn’t need my mother to fill in the necessary gaps about the whole story. I knew it by heart. After all, this was my life.
I started from the beginning when I was a kid I was always obsessively aware of my surroundings. At restaurants, for example, I’d always know where the exit was and about how many strides it would take to get there. I’d listen in on other people’s conversations all the while trying to guess the relationships of the two people sitting at the table. People to me were puzzles that I sought to complete. I used the pieces given, such as body movements and word choice, to construct an image in my head of who they were. Interacting with those people was never an issues. Conversations came easily to me. The stress came afterwards when I’d pick my words and vividly detail what could have been said. Embarrassing moments that usually occurred within these conversations were playing in full volume in my brain and echoed in the space given, constantly reminding me of the mistakes I’ve made throughout my life. After a while, my head began to feel like an old turntable that only had one side of a scratched record playing.
Junior high was a rough two years filled with choppy hair and finding loopholes in my school uniform. My seventh grade year consisted of many dramatic events. My school life was cluttered with nasty rumors and I spent my time trying to figure myself out while all these people were trying to tell me otherwise. I found my safe-haven in the English classroom where I divulged into writing for the first time. This was also the year I received my first record player for Christmas. It was a cheap brand and my first album was The White Album by the Beatles. I listened to that album relentlessly, belting out the lyrics when I was alone and dancing around in my bedroom.
Eighth grade was far different, and not in a good way. The school hallways suddenly felt like a zoo that I couldn’t navigate anymore. Lions of boys carefully observed the girls of giraffes from behind glass walled enclosures, memorizing their movements and visually measuring how deep their teeth could go into the their legs. The girls were taller and more sophisticated, but they still maintained a level of immaturity and naivety. The teachers operated like sloths on steroids, paying so much attention to some things while none at all to others. They were everywhere, though, and nothing could really get past them. Maybe I was some obscure animal like a chameleon who tried to blend in and just get by. My true colors would show when I wrote essays or found a new band. Other than that, I tried to adapt to whatever environment I found myself in. It was easier that way.
Signs of anxiety began to show at the beginning of my eighth grade year, but I contributed heart palpitations and nausea to a boy who had appeared in my life. He was the bright spot in my long days of unhappiness. That might sound playfully innocent of me, that I’d put so much of my feeling into one person, but when your life seems like it’s slowly ending, you’ll take what you can get.
I had my first panic attack while sitting alone in my bedroom studying for a quiz that was not important to my grade whatsoever. With my lights dim and candles lit, I sat on my bed staring at my textbook and humming to the radio as music filled my quiet room. The feeling started in my toes. It felt like someone was pouring sand onto my body to the point where I lost control of it. I was pushed into the mattress with an unmeasurable amount of weight. As my breathing increased, so did my heart rate. I was trapped in a hell underneath my own skin and nothing I could do would make it move. My record player spun until The White Album itched to a stop and the slow heartbeats of the speakers were the only noise left. Once the attack subsided, I ran into my mother’s room and she held me as I cried onto her pillow. I felt like a child again, being so young and comforted by her warm skin which was now sticky with my tears.
What had just happened was the first battle in the war with my brain.
To this day, my next attack was still my worst one. I remember it down the the exquisitely painful detail. English class still held itself as a safe place for me to exist, but in that moment it’s colors were warped and it looked the same as every other unsafe place in the universe. I remember my teacher was writing on the board in green pen. She was writing the number three when my eyes went blurry. I shook my head, but no clarity prevailed. That feeling began again in my toes and my legs soon felt like the fuzzy screens in between channels on the TV. The muscles in my legs and neck began twitching and my body moved into overdrive. I had to get out. Out! Away from there. English class no longer felt like home. Those people around me were here to hurt me. I had to go. Go! Now! Leave! Get out! Something was terribly wrong.
I stumbled out into the hallway and fell to my knees. The floor tiles were like ice that sent shivers over my already trembling body. I stared at the freckled white slabs and watched the dots swim around on the milky surface as my eyes went in and out of focus. I hauled myself up and walked the extra few steps to get to the front office and called my mom. The office chair was itchy on my skin and I counted every second before I got to leave those two blue doors that kept me trapped in school. When my mom came to get me, I sat in the car and rode out the rest of the attack. I cried until my stomach muscles were raw from clenching and my makeup was smeared on my waterline underneath my bloodshot eyes. I shook until the thunder in my veins hushed to a dull, slow metronome. My heart palpitated until it ran out of extra beats. My ears rang until the terrible ringing of a poorly assembled symphony finished its recital for the day.
The in-between weeks leading up to summer were rough. School was always stressful, but I no longer found happiness in the people or the things that I used to. My books seemed uninteresting and my friends were like strangers. I had headphones on more times than not and began to attend concerts on a regular basis with my best friend. We visited one little venue in our hometown frequently and I’ve developed an emotional attachment to squat, brick building. Walking beyond those doors with “X”s on my hands and feeling the spilled beer on the floor beneath me was a comfort. The band would come on stage and suddenly these vibrations coursed through each and every one of the audience members and united a group of strangers. The vibrations replaced my heartbeats and I felt them wash over me in waves that I’d be willing to drown in. Those were the nights I remembered. Those were the nights when I felt okay and happy. And those nights were few and far between.
Months later, I found myself in my first counseling session where she told me to listen to religious chants and try to “calm down” during a panic attack. It was nice to talk about all of the things in my life and receive undivided personal attention for an hour, but she raised up things I didn’t want to think about. The one thing I did take from my counseling sessions was that I didn’t let myself rest in happiness. When I felt good, I immediately thought of how in a little while, I won’t feel like this. Happiness was a fleeting feeling, so why would I rest in such a futile inconsistency? Other than that, she didn’t help much. I needed more help than just talking it out.
The migraines would begin when high school did and my days were constantly plagued by them. Every morning I’d wake up with one and continue the day with my eyes and ears sensitive to everything. They still come around often and I’ve had to deal with migraine medicine and caffeine withdraws after being on over the counter medicines too consistently. The rebound headaches were the worst because I couldn’t do anything to help them. I’d just get a few ice packs, drink some tea, and try not to panic about how my vision and hearing was distorted. Often, I couldn’t sleep because of the caffeine or the brain-splitting pain I felt so consistently. I’d spend time at three or four in the morning sitting in my bedroom and watching the world close and open it’s eyes over and over. When I did sleep, dreams turned into vivid nightmare. Panic attacks would wake me up. There was no break from any of it.
Panic attacks occurred three to four times a week and I used the bathroom more for crying. Tests sent me into severe ones, random things gave me minor but plentiful attacks.
After worried discussions with my parents, many appointments and, phone calls later, I ended up right there in his office with the dim lights and the mosaic coffee table.
He asked me typical questions about run of the mill topics like homicidal tendencies and suicidal thoughts and then he got down to business. He diagnosed me with a panic disorder and an unidentified anxiety disorder with spouts of minor depression. I was prescribed medication for all and am working the dosages into every day.
There is no end to my story. Most stories have a beginning, middle, and an end, but at the moment my story is just the beginning. There are days where my brain gets the best of me and I don’t eat or want to wake up. Life seems pointless and routine. Things are stressful and everything is against me. Those days don’t go away. But my mental disorders have taught me more about myself than anything else has. They’ve brought me closer to my family and friends. They’ve taught me how to savor the taste of happiness because it’s not always on my tongue. They’ve taught me how to appreciate moments in life when I feel okay. They’ve taught me how to feel music because it’s cheaper than therapy.
I wouldn’t give them back for the world.