by Kristin Brig-Ortiz
I am Alice in a Wonderland set on fire. My eyes watch my family’s house burn down on my friend’s television, the reporter’s voice blurred by the imagined crackling and snapping I hear coming from my bedroom. My friend babbles next to me about extra uniforms for school this week, something about my underwear catching on fire as an absurd situation to think about. She laughs. My thoughts run in circles. What else is burning in my bedroom? I think to myself. My books. My crucifix and holy cards. My beloved stuffed animals that, even as a fifth grader, I still slept with each night. My hamster Peppermint, trapped in her cage. Suddenly my breath catches, and the world becomes very loud and very soft at the same time, part of the sudden out of body experiences I have periodically and cannot explain. The tears begin falling for the hundredth time that afternoon. What would happen now, a life changed with a single bolt of lightning?
I am full of what I now recognize as anxiety, the world turning under my feet. Numbers, equations, pencil marks cloud my chemistry exam. Oxygen and Nitrogen bleed from the graphite stick while Carbon and Hydrogen marry through single and double bonds. A sudden burst of dizziness. The familiar feel of the world shifting under my desk’s chair. Every noise becomes muffled. Where the muffling stops the clarity kicks in. Sharpness suffuses my senses. A number written in the answer space jars my brain; a cough hits my head like a hand slapping my skull. My eyes close, ever so briefly, trying to regain my sense of reality. My mind automatically clicks into a Hail Mary, praying that my heavenly Mother calms the storm going on in my body. One Hail Mary after another, a repetitious string of soothing words. By the following equation, noises return to normal. The world no longer moves under me. The rest of the test is conducted in peace.
I am a silent Cinderella, carefully sweeping the front doorstep with a broom. Leftover soil from my mom’s potting endeavors slides into the garden to the side, to remain there until the next breath of wind picks it up and back onto the stone porch. The broom’s straw head sways from side to side under my careful hands, prying loose dirt from in between the cemented gray stones. Thunder rumbles off to the west. My head lifts, my clouded eyes looking toward the dark stratus clouds gathering in the distance. He’s supposed to call in an hour, and then this beautiful relationship, my first romance, will end. A cool breeze ruffles my hair, which sits on my head in a stringy, tangled mess. One by one, raindrops fall to the stone path leading through the herb garden to the back yard. My thoughts are like those raindrops, falling in random order to the grey path of my mind. They tangle together in the way my hair has, happiness and good memories fogged up in light of the past night and morning. One hour until anxiety takes over my personality, my mental health, my positive attitude, for good. My mind focuses on the broom and the storm clouds, harbingers of summer thunder and lightning, disorder and depression. Currently the only ordered part of my life is in my hands, in the constant sweeping motion of the broom, unchanging in the control of my sense of touch.
I am a procrastinator on a Sunday. My mind will not perform the work it needs to do. Multiple Microsoft Word pages lie open on my Mac in my dorm room, untouched white documents that are still waiting for that first sentence, that first word, that first try. I lie on my bed with my eyes closed. I just want out, out, OUT. Just to be ok for a week. Just to lead a normal life with normal classes and normal friends. Friends that don’t allow someone to run another friend over with their unkind words. Friends that always remember to invite me to do things. Maybe some hot tea would boost productivity. But no, there is a sink full of unwashed dishes downstairs that I cannot bear to see. My blankets wrinkle as I climb under them. My eyes close. Time to go talk to someone about this.
I am sick to my stomach. He had to send those nasty texts to me. He had to yell at me and tell me just what he thought of my inabilities. The Chinese food turns in my stomach, a washing machine swirling sweet and sour chicken in a soap of acid. One time to the bathroom, then back to bed. Looking back over the texts. Turning on The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon may be funny, but he isn’t helping my stomach. One more trip to the bathroom, once more back to bed. Sudden pain, getting out of bed, considering the bathroom. Five minutes later, my parents are standing over the sweet and sour mess my stomach made on my bedroom carpet. My face may feel hot and embarrassed, but my stomach is now at rest.
I am frustrated. The piled dishes in the sink, my roommate’s live-in boyfriend, partner, thing taking up our apartment’s space. I sit on the edge of my bed. My slightly shaking hands clench the blue and white quilt dotted with flowers. My eyes close in an effort to regain composure. Stressful thoughts plague my brain: that senior paper that seems impossible to argue, those six grad school applications waiting for me to push the submit button, the difficulties and embarrassments my incorrect horn ambiture causes me during orchestra rehearsal. Not to mention the boyfriend, partner, thing inhabiting my space constantly. All the time. I jump off the bed and launch myself headlong into my closet. Land on the thickly-carpeted floor. Shut the door. Scream until I cannot scream anymore, pounding the carpet, tears falling thickly. A new and now familiar kind of anxiety attack, a problem only getting worse with each little trauma.
I am a failure at a loss for words. My fiancé standing in front of me, open envelope in his hands. My last grad school rejection letter had been hastily stuffed back into its ripped envelope; I could see the edge of the paper peeking out of its hidey-hole. We stare at different parts of the problem, me at the letter and envelope, he at my stressed body. A sigh escapes me. How anti-climatic. I blink for what seems a decade. What happens next?
I am the child of divorcing parents. My father looks at me with I don’t know what in his eyes. Is it sadness, happiness, frustration? He tells me from across a table and down a long metaphysical tunnel that there is no help for it, he’s going to file. My parents’ marriage is over at this moment, long before the papers are signed. My father tells me I am in my mid-twenties, that this shouldn’t matter because I am an engaged adult who lives her own life. My mind fills with rage. The sounds around us dim. My mouth opens and releases an endless scream. I WANT MY FAMILY. My uncle opens the backdoor, tells his brother their friend has arrived. I WANT MY FAMILY. This isn’t the right time, my dad snaps. I WANT MY FAMILY. Tell him to leave, my dad continues. I WANT MY FAMILY. The backdoor shuts as my uncle recedes, the scene unwelcoming to his presence. My hands slap my knees repeatedly. My dad’s attempts to stop them are to no avail. I WANT MY FAMILY I WANT MY FAMILY I WANT MY FAMILY. Tears stream down my heated cheeks, the panic attack draining into fatigue. I want my family.
I am an American voter watching the 2016 election. I feel drained. My ballot cast, my mind in turmoil. My hands blindly cross-stitch a stocking as my ears tune to the announcements on the screen. Today is an historic day. A megalomaniac will be elected in an hour and a half, and afterwards I will go to bed in my childhood room for the last time. The divorce, graduate school tensions, and the election are blurring together tonight. The future seems so unsure; I’m walking into unknown, and terrifying, territory. My hands shake. The world is turning faster than it should, life running on a treadmill with a broken “off” switch. My mom enters the living room. She looks at me. Looks at the screen. Yawns, says goodnight. Off to bed she goes. The needle moves in and out of the linen, in and out. The little house finished, my eyes shift back to the screen as Mr. Big Orange Head wins another state. And another. And another. Several red states later, my hands place the cross-stitch on the side table in its Ziploc bag. I get up. I turn off the television. Stare at the scene behind me. The comfortable red chair, the beautiful side table, the ornate lamp that had become my place in the living room when I was home. After a solemn minute, my finger switches off the lamp. My feet patter through the kitchen I had used for so many years, baking and cooking, reading and tea-drinking. My finger switches off the kitchen light. My feet patter up the stairs on which we had left so many of our belongings and forgotten to take upstairs for weeks. My finger switches off the stairway light. My feet patter the short distance into my bedroom, across the carpet stain where I threw up Chinese food. Prayers said at the bedside, my feet patter back across the room to the doorway. My finger rests on the light switch. This is it. My eyes close. November 8, 2016. Trump elected president. My last night at home, the last remnant of the stable four-person family I once knew. The election may send the country down an alternative timeline, but I fell down the rabbit hole a long time ago. I open my eyes, survey my room once more before it’s dark. Sadness. My finger switches the light off. Into bed I go, one last time.
I am peering at the little white pill in the palm of my hand. Its tidy, miniscule ridges, forming words and numbers, symbolize the order in which this thing will put my life. The out of body experiences, the tears, the screaming, the fist pounding will go away with this one white object. I do not know that the pill will bring new little traumas into my life, the unanticipated physical problems, the stigma of taking a psychiatric medication, the fogginess and dizziness that accompanies running out of pills. But this white circle, this little disk, will also bring unanticipated benefits, help me deal with my wrecked family, my social anxiety and paranoia. Turn me back into a positive person, one who doesn’t see peril at every turn and corner, the one that existed before that fateful, cloudy day on the front porch, before the lightening bolt hit my family’s back porch and burned down my childhood. My hand lifts the pill to my eyes, pops the pill into my mouth, water quickly washing it down. My husband of six months enters the bathroom, hugs me from behind, looks at me in the mirror as I look back at him. The future starts today, and it looks brighter than it has in a long, long time.
Anxiety Disorder (n.): “Frequently have intense, excessive, and persistent worry or fear about everyday situations. Often, anxiety disorders involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes.” [Mayo Clinic definition]
In other words, anxiety is the disorder of little traumas.
Kristin Brig-Ortiz is a PhD student in the History of Medicine Department at Johns Hopkins. Her dissertation examines water management strategies in nineteenth-century Cape Colony and Natal port cities with particular attention to public health governance. In her spare time, she loves to cross stitch, watch historical dramas, and read an assortment of fiction.